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When a French woman drowns off the coast of India, her estranged husband travels there to find the girl who claims to have been possessed by his wife’s spirit. If that sounds like the premise for the most pretentious art film ever made, or perhaps a straight-to-video horror flick, the result here is something palpably better: a beautifully — albeit heavy-handedly — realized portrait of love, loss and alienation that benefits from superb cinematography and robust performances in several languages.
Bearing the rather blunt title of His Wife (Son epouse), this fourth feature from writer-director Michel Spinosa (Anna M.) is an audacious and often impressive continent-hopping drama, even if its underlying conceit is not always easy to swallow. But with powerful turns from real-life couple Yvan Attal and Charlotte Gainsbourg, as well as by a trio of Tamil actors unknown outside their community, this exquisitely shot effort could find a few adventurous takers beyond France, where it opens theatrically March 12.
A rather subdued opening introduces us to stoical veterinarian, Joseph (Attal), who lives in the French countryside with his love, Catherine (Gainsbourg), a woman suffering from a prescription med addiction that has replaced a long-quashed heroin habit. When Joseph asks Catherine’s hand in marriage, we jump ahead to a time when his wife has disappeared and is found… washed up on a beach in Chennai (Madras). Then we cut to a Tamil woman, Gracie (Janagi), who’s just been wed, but finds herself consumed by Catherine’s vengeful spirit (known as a “pey”).
While this all sounds rather preposterous, there’s a method to Spinosa’s madness, and as Joseph travels to India to find out what the hell is going on, the story leaps around in time to reveal how his relationship with Catherine ultimately unraveled, and why Gracie wound up caught in the middle. It’s a risky scenario indeed, but the director and co-writer Agnes de Sacy (A Castle in Italy) weave an undulating narrative that manages to intelligently fill its many gaps, while gradually painting the portrait of a love affair gone terribly wrong.
But even more than by its clever structure, His Wife is marked by an impressive sense of visual storytelling, with DP Rakesh Haridas using natural light and creeping Steadicam images to capture an array of memorable settings, ranging from massive blue-gray French forests to the gritty Indian decors where much of the drama plays out. A lengthy shot, where Gracie’s brother (Laguparan) drives a drugged-out Catherine home on his scooter, is particularly breathtaking, as are a few sequences set in a jungle adjoining the church where Joseph tries to piece things together.
Granted, it’s easy to accuse the film of providing yet another case of cinematic colonialism, with psychologically scarred Westerners traveling to the Third World to work out their many issues. But there’s an emotional sincerity on display here, not to mention an excellent level of craft, that somewhat belies that criticism, and the committed performances by Attal (Do Not Disturb) and Gainsbourg (Nymphomaniac) go a long way in rendering the material palatable.
Likewise, the cast of Tamil actors, especially newcomer Janagi as the tortured Gracie, offer up lived-in performances that never belittle all the bizarre happenings. Even the scene where Gracie is put into a trance by a local priest, swinging her head in circles like some sort of Bollywood Linda Blair, manages to leave the viewer with a sense of wonder and fear.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Market)
Production companies: Ex Nihilo, Artemis Productions, Wide Angle Creations, Belgacom, France 3 Cinema
Cast: Yvan Attal, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Janagi, Mahesh, Laguparan
Director: Michel Spinosa
Screenwriters: Michel Spinosa, Agnes de Sacy
Producer: Patrick Sobelman
Director of photography: Rakesh Haridas
Production designers: Valerie Valero, Rembon Balraj
Costume designers: Nathalie Raoul, Poornima Ramaswamy
Editor: Ewin Ryckaert
Sales agent: Other Angle Pictures
No rating, 107 minutes
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