Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Mar 03, 2022 4:26 pm 
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Fond deception

Drawn from Wilkie Collins novel The New Magdalen, Aurélia Georges' Secret Name/La place d'une autre is a Victorian melodrama that becomes a thriller and ends with emotional sweetness. The picaresque protagonist Nélie Laborde (the quietly protean Lyna Khoudri) starts as a guttersnipe, goes from streetwalker to maid and back, then, urged by a lesbian recruiter, joins the Red Cross and braves the front as a litter-bearer and nurse's aide in the early days of World War I. It is there the thriller begins when she encounters Rose Juillet (Maud Wyler), a penniless Swiss woman of gentle birth whose dying father has given her a letter of introduction to a wealthy French woman, to whom she is going to offer her services as a live-in reader. When Rose is apparently struck dead by a mortar wound, Nélie becomes Rose and is allowed free passage as a Swiss to join Eléonore de Lengwil (Sabine Azéma), a rich lady in provincial France. Later, Rose will turn out not to have been so dead after all.

How can the guttersnipe Nélie become the well-born Rose? Perhaps Rose's being from Switzerland, where Eléonore has not traveled, covers any roughnesses of accent; but above all, Nélie has always been, in fact, a great reader, and so her vocabulary and knowledge are good. She arrives with Victor Hugo in her little satchel, and her literacy wins over Eléonore, who will be ever more in her thrall.

We must add that this is a film that uses its budget well. The scenes all are richly realized. One of the stars is Eléonore's big rectangular ivy-draped mansion. When she stages a social with a pianist and singer, the fine dresses of the ladies, a matter of laces and overlays, are subtly magnificent. No matter that they may look all designed by the same stylist, costume designer Agnès Noden. Nélie, now "Rose," dresses simply, but Khoudri (I said she was protean) now has a proper late-Victorian look - and body-shape. Azéma, after all those Rivette films with wildly flaming hair, now wears a tight network of blonde-gray braids and a mild expression, but her face becomes a mirror or altering moods when we learn to read it, mostly pleasure and approval as she grows to dote on Rose.

Being a melodrama means emotions never stop being on edge and the tension never lags. Aurélia Georges, whose script with Maud Amneline is most attentive not only to the significance of class but to the vulnerable position of women in World War I Europe, directs a distinctive group of supporting male cast members, especially the relatively unfamiliar Laurent Poitrenaux as Julien, the local minister and Eleanor's nephew, whose comings and goings grow worrisome for "Rose" because as his sermons show, he sees the complexities of things. Poitrenaux is a pleasingly odd and ambiguous figure. So is a plump, insecure police commissioner (Olivier Broche) later on.

But it's the women who count. Azéma impresses for her warmth and subtlety as the goodhearted but stern woman of wealth, and Khoudri is continually relatable as the female picaresque gutter-to-posh-to-gutter heroine whose intelligence, good looks, and proclivity for reading enable her to step into the role of an impoverished young woman of good birth. Before we find this implausible we must consider that lonely rich old ladies may often be subconsciously crying out to be duped by the right person; people are conned because they want to be. Rose," who never does or says anything unkind or devious, likes Eléanore, and above all loves living in the security and comfort of Eléanore's ample home.

Cahiers du Cinéma, with the most enthusiastic review according to AlloCiné, admires the film for its "classicism" and a narrative structure whose straightforward "linearity" produces a "pure emotion" in the viewer. Indeed everything narrows down to the sentimentalism of loving sympathy in Eléonore de Lengwil, who wants to adopt Nellie even when she knows she is an imposter.

Is this, finally, a study of class, of morality, of identity, or just a suspenseful crime story? With Collins' tale and still with this updated period adaptation, it's all working together. In his Variety review ("An Imposter Shakes Class Hierarchy"), Jay Weissberg argues that due to the decreased importance of class today, Georges is obliged to subordinate Collins' original theme of class to the moral issue: Nellie's willful exploitation of the kind rich lady, Eleonore, who trusts her and loves her so much in her pose as "Rose." He also finds the complete success of the deception somewhat implausible.

Actually Nellie's success as "Rose" is shown to be very much a matter of luck. She and Eleanore click. "Rose" discovers a natural ability to slip into a new, higher role - we've seen her go through a lot of changes early on - and Eléanore wants this new relationship to be right and true. And thus the impersonation works beyond "Rose's" wildest expectations. This heightens the suspense, because we know it's too good to be true.

It's clear that the distinction of the film owes a lot not only to the classy mise-en-scène, costumes, and World War I era atmosphere, but landing Sabine Azéma in the key role of Eléonore de Lengwil, the well-off lady the gutter-born young Nellie (Lyna Khoudri) deceives. Khoudri, the at-risk picaresque heroine, has a neutral, willing, cuddliness it's easy to identify with. Notice the tremendously suspenseful scene (though it's not completed with total deftness) where she's seen from behind, naked, vulnerable, and beautiful, in a bath waiting for hot water to be brought to her, and the real Rose approaches.

There is a deep irony too about the real Rose and the vicissitudes she encounters when she attempts to challenge her impersonator in the face of "Rose's" firmly established position of the darling of the lady of the house - a sequence that eventually drags us into the vagaries of the pre-war era mental health treatment scene. Individual scenes in multiple milieux sparkle because of the film's assured mise-en-scène. Wait for the long alley Rose, now back to Nélie, traverses with a gleaming white car parked at the end of it. It's a beautifully set up emotional climax and surprise framed with shiny hardware and dramatic space.

Secret Name/lLa place d'une autre, 112 mins., debuted at Locarno Aug. 8, 2021 (reviewed there by Weissberg), shown at a few small European festivals. French theatrical release Jan. 19, 2022 (

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