Chicas -- Film Review

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TAORMINA, Italy -- The Mediterranea competition here at the 56th Taormina Film Festival has started off with a bang with the debut film of accomplished French playwright and novelist Yasmina Reza. It's a thoughtful, in places profound, look at the subject of aging from a woman's point of view, yet "Chicas" always manages to remain emotionally acute at the same time. A sub-theme about the importance of nationality in the formation of memory and character (here, Spain vs. France) enhances its resonance on a number of levels.

The film is also successful because it is based on superb performances from some deeply experienced actresses, highlighted by an almost militantly modest, yet quietly powerful turn by the veteran French actor, Andre Dussollier, who can still muster the charisma of a leading man. As such, the film should do very well in France, and in art-film circles elsewhere around the world, especially among women "d'un certain age," who will respond to Reza's delicate, sometimes painful probing of the love-hate relations felt among adult women who are related. This probing can be somewhat edgy, however, and viewers looking for a feel-good picture about moms and daughters should look elsewhere.

The legendary Spanish actress Carmen Maura is magnificent as the beautifully aging Pilar, who brought her three young daughters to France at a young age. Now, thirty years later, Nuria (Seigneur), is a famous but lonely screen actress, Aurelia (Dreville), is a waspish stage actress prone to panic attacks who resents the attention Nuria gets, and Christal (Tual), who is married with kids, but feels the need to take a lover to complete herself.

The girls are alternately catty toward and supportive of each other, and sometimes at the same time, but are unanimous in their criticism of Pilar when she meets Fernand (Dussollier), whom they look down on because he is a real estate agent. And of course no one is good enough for their mother, though she is head-over-heels in love, and their own multiple varieties of unhappiness are acted out in their ostensibly "protective" responses toward her. A couple of husbands are also present, but are unable to provide the emotional reassurance the women seem constantly to need.

The basic structure of the film, given Reza's background, is theatrical, and thus it's very talky and most of what occurs is in small scenes where one or two characters exchange revealing dialogue, or in Big Scenes in which emotions suddenly boil over. Here, however, Reza is able to turn a "fault" into something fresh because it allows for more direct expression of ideas that go beyond the surface.

The fact that Aurelia is rehearsing an aesthetically challenging play throughout the film, also gives the director the chance to introduce some openly poetic, often profound dialogue into the mix that wouldn't otherwise work in the more naturalistic vein of cinema. It's surprising how much a cinematic beginner like Reza is able to express both through quietly provocative visuals (a shot of Nuria, all alone in the hallway of her hotel after she has just won a big acting award, is devastating), as well as through the use of music, especially flamenco, which keeps the Spanish theme subtly present throughout.

It's true that the emotional and psychological side of things takes a while to build, and a viewer might become impatient with so much unfocused chatter in the beginning. However, after a while Reza's strategy becomes clear as she carefully builds a platform from which Pilar can take off into true independence, loving and supportive of all her daughters, but completely her own real self.

Venue: Taormina Film Festival
Production Companies: SBS Films
Cast: Carmen Maura, Emmanuelle Seigner, Andre Dussollier, Valerie Dreville, Christele Tual
Director: Yasmina Reza
Screenwriter: Yasmina Reza
Producers: Said Ben Said
Director of photography: Antoine Heberle
Costume designer: Natalie Lecloultre
Editor: Monica Coleman
Sales: TF1 International
No rating, 84 minutes
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