Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Wed Feb 26, 2014 5:14 pm 
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YVAN ATTAL AND JANAGI IN HIS WIFE

Doomed marriages in France and India

In Michel Spinosa's fragmentarily-told, fractured, as well as preposterous and contrived new film (cowriten with Agnès de Sacy) a veterinarian called Joseph De Rosa (Yvan Attal) wants to marry Catherine (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Attal's wife in real life) and have a child. But she has doubts. She reveals why by taking him to a recovery meeting where she shares that she used to be a heroin addict and is now addicted to a prescription opiate substitute, Subutex. She has taken the dose down very low, but can't give it up. A lot of other things happen, but most of them are recounted to us after she has died in India.

It turns out that Catherine seems to have drowned. She has also left Joseph to go to India on her own, and has been out of touch for some time. It is therefore surprising that someone calls Joseph in France, from a cell phone on the beach, at the very moment when Catherine's body is being retrieved from the water.

Joseph makes the journey to India and meets with people who knew Catherine, who was teaching in a Christian school at the time of her death. Before long Joseph is embroiled with the French-speaking Gracie (Janagi), a young Tamil coworker of Catherine's who went berserk right after her marriage, which presumably took place some time after Catherine's death. (As I said, the storytelling is fragmented and fractured.) We also get occasional flashbacks to Catherine when she was still in France. These reveal that she and Joseph did get married, despite her doubts, and she did have a child, but the circumstances were not only tragic, but alienated her from Joseph.

From Wikipedia, you will learn that "Tamil women in India are said to experience possession by pey spirits." That is what we're told has happened to Gracie, and the "pey" that has invaded her is none other than the tormented spirit of the deceased Catherine. Her death was not by drowning, either. There is much running back and forth by Joseph with two Tamil men called Anthony (Mahesh) and Thomas (Laguparan), who look rather alike. One of them (Anthony) is Gracie's husband, the other her brother. There is much translating back and forth between French, Tamil, and English. Gracie is taken for a while to a very primitive kind of mental hospital, where in lieu of heavy duty tranquilizers, the inmates are apparently held in chains out on the front lawn.

Joseph sets out to help Gracie, and he apparently succeeds, though whether he is any better off afterward is uncertain. Nor can we claim to have been enlightened. As the disturbed young woman, Janagi certainly gives her all, though the effect is simply of noise and violence. Attal and Gainsbourg seem stressed out. The other Indian participants do their best. Are the filmmakers trying to draw a parallel between drug addiction and possession by an alien spirit? In the end, revelations suggest what troubles Gracie is not demonic possession but old-fashioned guilt for a careless act that had tragic consequences. His Wife is a grandiose mélange, full of exotic images, haunting sounds, overwrought acting, and confusing chronology. It is meant to be profound, but it is not very coherent. Its characters and incidents are sketched in with a very broad brush, and noise and color (though many of the images also are excessively dark) being used as a substitute for clarity and meaning.

When this film debuted at the Berlinale's Market section Jordan Mintzer of Hollywood Reporter commented that its plot line sounded like "the premise for the most pretentious art film ever made, or perhaps a straight-to-video horror flick," but turned out to be "something palpably better." Perhaps not so much better, though as Mintzer says, the performances are "robust." And as he also says, the natural light cinematography by Rakesh Haridas is "superb," but that is not all of the time because it is too often very murky and makes one miss the days of black and white when there was attention to lighting for every shot.

His Wife/Son épouse, 108 mins., is scheduled for 12 March 2014 release in France. It shows in the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series in New york Friday, March 7, 10:15pm – IFC; Wednesday, March 12, 1:00pm – EBM; 6:30pm – WRT, and this is, naturally, the film's North American premiere. It was screened for this review as part of the Rendez-Vous series.

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