La Vie promise

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Olivier Dahan
Running time: 93 minutes
Language: French
Currently showing
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“La Vie promise (The Promised Life)” is not really a movie, but a love letter from director Olivier Dahan to actress Isabelle Huppert (“The Pianist”). Dahan hatched the screenplay idea with the sole intention of getting Huppert to play the lead, and once he got her onto the set, it seems that he refused to take the camera away from her face.

Works like this demonstrate the power of the director’s gaze: Although one of France’s most visible actresses, Huppert had never been hailed as a ravishing beauty. But by the end of “La Vie promise,” there is no doubt that she’s breathtaking.

Few love relationships can match the romantic intensity Dahan has going here with Huppert — he seemingly sacrifices the plot, coherent storytelling and a lot of common (filmmaking) sense just to enable Huppert to blossom in his lens and deliver what could be the finest performance of her career.

Huppert’s role is Sylvia, a foul-mouthed, pill-popping, alcoholic prostitute working the streets of Nice on the French Riviera. She’s also past her prime and finding it difficult to get a decently paying customer — the opening scenes show a heavily madeup Sylvia in a flaming red dress, haggling with a man about her price (he quickly drives away). Interestingly, in direct contrast to her appearance, her apartment is charming, nicely kept and decorated with subtle flower arrangements. It’s hard to reconcile Sylvia’s living quarters with her brittle crassness — when her 14-year-old daughter, Laurence (Maud Forget), comes to visit from the institution where Sylvia had dumped her, mother rudely tells daughter to take off and (by way of compensation) throws a box of biscuits at her chest.

Dahan never insists that we like Sylvia, but he rather forcefully persuades us to share his fascination with a woman who can best be described as a modern version of Emma Bovary (who, coincidently, Huppert played in “Madame Bovary”), minus the cushy social status. Both women are plagued by a thorny dissatisfaction with the comforts of bourgeois life, but whereas Emma had chosen financial ruin and suicide, Sylvia opted for living past her 40s in a state of drugged-out apathy. (We never learn what exactly was the cause of her descent to prostitution, but she had ditched a home and family to get there.) She can’t be bothered to dispense one word of tenderness to her daughter, even though Laurence clearly adores her mother and only wants to stay close.

Then an unexpected murder forces Sylvia to take Laurence and flee Nice, on a journey to Sylvia’s hometown. Not surprisingly, the pair end up fighting and Laurence stalks off into the night. Alone in a hotel room, Sylvia weeps for the first time and murmurs: “How does one become a truly beautiful woman, a woman with her head held high, and always smiling at her children?” Ah, Sylvia. A similar question was asked a century before by Emma, and she, too, had not known the answer.

For Dahan, Sylvia (and, by extension, Huppert) is a gold mine of inspiration: a self-serving, hard-as-nails bitch but equipped with an irresistible vulnerability. Dahan inserts floral images to break up the scenes, and each time it’s as though he’s offering Syliva a new bouquet.

But he’s not her only admirer: When Syliva is destitute, she runs into Joshua (Pascal Greggory), an escaped convict who gives her a lift and then (unknowingly) helps out Laurence. Initially, he’s irritated by Sylvia’s crudeness, but pretty soon he finds it hard to stay away. He presents her with a floral-patterned Chinese dress that makes her seem much softer and more fragile. Gradually, Sylvia stops yelling and flinging insults, and begins to lose the hard edge that had made her unapproachable. By the end of the story, her whole image has changed to complement the Provencal flowers she finally admits to loving so much.

In many ways, Sylvia (like Emma) embodies a French feminine stereotype — that of the self-absorbed, elegantly feline woman who’s governed by rules outside of societal conventions. She can look great wearing the same dress three days running, never apologizes or explains, and has a sexiness that goes beyond age.

Dahan piles on the cliches, but strangely enough Sylvia comes across as genuine. Emma had pondered “what it means to be a woman,” and Dahan supplies a reply in his depiction of Sylvia: It is to captivate the world not by her virtues or deeds, but with the mere fact of her existence.

One is tempted to compare her to the American femme image as promoted by Hollywood, in which all the emphasis is on what the woman does, rather than what she is. A clearer distinction is that Hollywood-created women tend to be preoccupied with happiness, while Emma and Sylvia aren’t really interested. Whether they’re being confused or bitchy or damaging lives (their own and others) or selling themselves for cash, they’re both defined by a supreme confidence of being true to their natures, however self-destructive.

This is probably what kept drawing Laurence to Sylvia, and compelled Joshua to protect her. It’s also why Dahan chose to base the entire story around this one woman. At times, the film seems to swoon from its own ardor, and the unabashed longing is almost too personal to bear. I don’t know about the audience, but certainly all good actresses should get at least one such vehicle.

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