La Petite Lili (8/10)

by Tony Medley

Changing the characters’ profession from literary to film, director/co-writer (with Julien Boivent) Claude Miller presents an intriguing adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s play “The Seagull” (1897), which was his first big success. We meet them on an extended holiday in a relatively isolated spot of beauty and slowly get involved in their interrelationships.

It is initially very confusing to keep the characters straight, so you might want to take this with you. Mado Marceaux (Nicole Garcia) is a self-involved actress with a screenwriter boy friend, Brice (Bernard Giraudeau), and a son, Julien (Robinson Stévenin) who is a fledgling screenwriter. Julien makes a short film starring Lili (Ludivine Sagnier), a girl who lives across the bay from the shindig. Jeanne-Marie (Julie Depardieu), whose mother Léone is having an extra marital affair with Serge (Yves Jacques), the doctor of Mado’s brother, Simon (Jean Pierre Marielle), is in love with Julien but Julien seems to have the hots for Lili rather than Jeanne-Marie. Unfortunately for Julien, Lili is upwardly mobile and has desires of her own which include Brice. Alas, with all the philandering going on, Simon is terribly depressed, feeling he has wasted his life (“it just goes by so fast”).

Got that? Well, it took me a long, long time to figure out who was who and what their relationships were with the others in the film. They all seemed to be having affairs with people other than their significant others. Poor Serge is one of the more inept seducers in motion picture history. He takes a shot at Mado as well as Léone, and each time he’s on the verge of success he gets terrible nose bleeds (“it always happens when I get excited”), probably a metaphor for his own fear of passionate involvement.

Miller, with a big assist from cinematographer Gérard de Batista, creates the provocative atmosphere and captures the ambiguity of the characters’ feelings and relationships with one another. But the charm of this little story is that it all revolves around the beautiful faux-naïf Lili. She is a manipulative, selfish vamp who instinctively seems to be able to ensnare any man to do precisely what she wants. The James Dean-like Julien is seductively morose with a strained relationship with his mother, Mado, but who has strong emotional ties to her. Julien and Brice find themselves in competition, not only for Julien’s mother, Mado, but also for the evanescent affections of Lili.

The story is told at least twice, aping Hamlet’s story within a story, by concluding with Julien making a film based on what actually happened and changing it to what could (should?) have happened. What makes this movie rock is the unsettling, understated sexuality of Sagnier, who made such a splash with her topless cavorting in “Swimming Pool” (2003).

This is a French-Canadian production and it’s the kind of film at which the French excel. It’s a serious, involving story of interpersonal relationships. What the characters say is what drives the film, more than what they actually do, so you have to concentrate, not only to keep the characters straight, but to understand what’s going on. And concentration is absolutely necessary because reading the subtitles, which often are white on white, is sometimes a real chore, but it is worth the effort. In French with subtitles.

March 27, 2005