The Vanishing Point

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PARIS -- "The Vanishing Point" ("Ce que mes yeux ont vu") is a cerebral, visually impressive reflection on concealment and revelation in art rather than a "Da Vinci Code"-style action film. Laurent de Bartillat's debut feature may have enough crossover appeal to ensure moderate boxoffice at home and abroad.

Art history student Lucie (Sylvie Testud) is fascinated by the presence of a mysterious woman, invariably seen from behind, in the works of the great French 18th century painter Jean-Antoine Watteau. She embarks on an investigation to determine the figure's identity, a quest that leads to a series of discoveries and a visit to Belgium for an auction.

As she becomes increasingly absorbed in her mission, Lucie is given a vital clue by Vincent (James Thierree), a deaf-mute she sees performing mime in the street outside the photocopy shop where she works. Meanwhile her academic supervisor Dussart (Jean-Pierre Marielle) appears bent on discouraging her from developing her theory that the woman was an actress, Charlotte Desmares, with whom Watteau was in love.

Perpetually broke, Lucie is in debt to her landlord, constantly borrows from her actress mother (Christiane Millet) and has to sell off a family heirloom in order to buy a painting that appears to hold the key to the mystery.

"Freely inspired" by the true story of Watteau's life, the movie imagines the discovery of a previously unknown work by the painter and seeks to establish a series of parallels, notably one between Lucie's mounting obsession with Watteau and the loss, when she was a child, of her mountaineer father.

Dussart, we also learn, lost his wife as a result of his own obsession with Watteau, while Vincent has an obsession with the river Bievre, a waterway that continues to flow beneath the pavements of Paris's left bank despite being paved over in the 19th century.

The movie has weaknesses as these connections often appear forced and there are holes and obscurities in the storyline. Yet De Bartillat and co-writer Alain Ross expertly convey their own painterly obsessions. (There are echoes here of Peter Greenaway's early movies.) Every picture tells a story, not simply about the subject but about the painter and even, digging deeper, about the person who is examining it. The frequent dissolves between paintings and Paris exteriors also add to an impression that mystery -- or history -- lies beneath every paving stone and every stroke of paint.

Testud, one of the brightest of France's young acting talents, is faultless as the dogged Lucie, while Marielle -- whom moviegoers will recognize as the slain museum curator in "The Da Vinci Code" -- is enjoying an Indian summer in an acting career going back half a century. Thierree is underused though, his character fading from the picture in the second half, one of the least satisfying aspects of a movie that rewards and frustrates in equal measure.

THE VANISHING POINT
Shiloh Films, 2.1 Films, Cofinova 3
Credits:
Director: Laurent de Bartillat
Writers: Laurent de Bartillat, Alain Ross
Producers: Geoffroy Grison, Fred Bellaiche
Director of photography: Jean-Marc Selva
Production designer: Sandra Castello
Music: David Moreau
Editor: Tina Baz Legal
Cast:
Sylvie Testud: Lucie
Jean-Pierre Marielle: Dussart
James Thierree: Vincent
Agathe Dronne: Garance
Christiane Millet: Lucie's mother
Miglan Mirtchev: Ivan
Chantal Trichet: nurse
Jean-Gabriel Nordmann: Gasque
Running time -- 88 minutes
No MPAA rating
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