Claire Darling is a substantial project - name stars, money on the screen, visualisation of an ambitious concept where past and present, real and fantastic appear in the same frame ... and there’s Catherine Deneuve with her three score years and ten still carrying major projects while Brigitte Bardot has become an eccentric cat fancier and Jeanne Moreau is dead.
There’s a lot to like here and in the opening stages I felt I was watching a big French movie.
In Verderonne, a small village in the Oise, Deneuve’s Claire Darling wakes up in the decaying family home filled with bric-a-brac collected over the years by her wealthy family. This is a film as much about things as it is about people - antique automata, Tiffany lamps, family portraits, a gold ring passed down among generations, a painting of water lilies given her by the devoted local curé, a chiming clock in the form of an elephant.
Deneuve lives alone and she’s more than a little dotty. When the cafe lady brings her regular coffee and rolls breakfast she declares that the day is a Vide Granier - everything must go - and she enlists locals working at the local quarry, which her family owned before it became Sino-Ciment, to take all the memorabilia into the yard. Catherine confuses one of the workers with her late son Simon Thomas (“Are you dead?”) and alternately sees the yard filled with her possessions and greedy buyers or silent and empty. Neighbour Laure Calamy is appalled, knowing the value of the material that is being snatched up both as antiques and as items rich in associations from the days when she was the playmate of Deneuve’s estranged daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, whom she immediately calls back to the house the daughter hasn’t visited for twenty years.
The back story is being filled in with scenes where Deneuve’s character, played by the elegant Alice Taglioni at different non-sequential ages, and her fantasies get mixed with surreal touches - a llama from visiting Circus Benzini runs across the road, its participants mingled with a memory of a decades back children’s costume party.
The books on offer are stuffed with the currency notes Deneuve’s husband Olivier Rabourdin’s hid there to avoid taxes, first greeted with delight, then dismissed when they turn out to be ancien francs no longer currency and then coveted again for their value on e-bay. This sense of fluctuating reality is the film’s essence.
So far, pretty good. Director Julie Bertuccelli stood out from the crowd with her Depuis qu'Otar est parti... a genuinely attractive film. We can forgive her The Tree. Everyone makes bad films when they come to Australia. Think Jackie Chan. However, here she’s got it all going for her and I feel myself sharing the dissatisfaction of the original language reviews.
The ending does wrap up all the loose ends except for little spectator Angèle Meunier-Bertuccelli and her presence is meant to be ambivalent. However, motivation is hazy, Rabourdin’s stinginess being equated with the death of his insect enthusiast son, the feud over the missing ring, the unopened letters, Deneuve’s premonition of death.
Julie Bertuccelli is guilty of the thing for which male directors have been carrying the can for years - the male characters - Rabourdin, Father Johan Leysen or the barely glimpsed son - only exist as elements of the women’s stories. It’s nice to see potential middle-aged love interest Gendarme Samir Guesmi making his presence felt despite this.