Thursday, 14 October 2010

Villa Amalia (Benoît Jacquot, 2009) DVD Review

Over the past few decades Isabelle Huppert has become something of an icon in French cinema. From Madame Bovary (Claude Chabrol, 1991) to Ma mère (Christophe Honoré, 2004) and beyond she has won accolades from critics and festivals (Cannes has awarded her Best Actress twice) alike. Her presence in a film automatically makes it interesting - something prolific filmmaker Benoît Jacquot understands perfectly, filling almost every frame of his film with the beautiful actress.

Adapted from the book by Pascal Quignard, Villa Amalia finds us in the same sort of territory occupied by Shirley Valentine (Lewis Gilbert, 1989) - Huppert playing Ann, a gifted musician who decides to escape after witnessing her husband with another woman. The film opens on a dark, rainy night. A P.O.V. shot from the perspective of a moving car instantly informs the tone and Caroline Champetier's (Nettoyage à sec, Anne Fontaine, 1997) beautiful yet haunted cinematography creates a suitably gloomy atmosphere. Ann approaches the house of her husbands lover, slowly, as the tension mounts. Bruno Coulais (Coraline, Henry Selick, 2009) scores the film much like a thriller; dramatic build up and sharp cut-offs informing much of the sound to Ann's deconstruction of life as she knew it. She is interrupted by Georges (Jean-Hugues Anglade), an old friend who recognizes her from afar. Before long she has decided to escape - where to doesn't matter, only that she must do it. She burns her records, throws out her clothes, sells her piano and draws the money from her bank account; Georges is, now, her only friend.

The film takes a good 45 minutes to deconstruct Ann's world - Jacquot's careful camera and the soothing piano music (played by Huppert herself, honing the skills she displayed in La pianiste, Michael Haneke, 2001) informing most of the emotion. The problem lies in the idea - although Ann is a perfectly drawn character, and Huppert plays her superbly, she's hard to warm to. This is, of course, the point - she's grown dissatisfied with life, has become distanced from the people around her and cold to the home she lives in. There are many scenes of her simply wandering the streets or a park, swimming in the pool or, as aforementioned, playing piano. These are her moments of escape, juxtaposed with the harsh scenes of her destruction-cum-therapy. The scenes work how they are supposed to, but emotional attachment becomes an issue.

Huppert is frosty and detached in the lead role; her face a blueprint of regret and disappointment. Her posture says more than her words but the delivery is perfect - every line holds a past and an uncertain future. Villa Amalia may not be a horror movie but there is something haunting about Huppert's performance - her uncertainty and depression having a damaged exterior all too recognizable to some.

Of course, Ann eventually leaves her life and ends up exploring herself in unexpected ways. To say any more would be to ruin a series of interesting and sensitive developments. What's important is how Jacquot (whose Deep In The Woods, 2010, is playing at the LFF this month) and Huppert keep us engaged in a deceptively simple tale; beautifully shot and interestingly scored. It's no masterpiece. But it is a gripping character study and a testament to the astounding talent of one of the finest actresses of our time.

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