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An intriguing tale of French rural history is handled with a very stolid sense of academism in Landes, the debut feature from director Francois-Xavier Vives. Like the imposing collection of corsets worn by its widowed heroine — played by the graceful Marie Gillain (Coco Before Chanel) — this fictionalized account of labor wars, landowner backstabbing and the arduous modernization of the film’s titular region is too tightly held in check to breath life into its characters, although some strong visuals and a decent turn from co-star Jalil Lespert help move things along.
Released locally to little fanfare in late July, this Franco-Belgian co-prod (whose producers include Ma vie en rose director Alain Berliner) should see additional fest slots after international premiering in Montreal, but will otherwise be best viewed on the small screen.
Indeed — and despite locations that include the sprawling woods and beaches of the Landes forest in southwestern France — the whole film has a musty, Masterpiece Theatre feel to it, never giving its subject the scope and dimension of a full-fledged period epic, however small the story it depicts.
Set in the 1920s, at a time when Gallic agricultural laborers were not yet paid as salaried workers, and when electricity was slowly making its way to the nation’s more remote regions, the scenario (co-written by Vives with Camille Fontaine and Emmanuel Roy) follows the travails of recent widow Liena (Gillain), who inherits her husband’s vast estate of resin-producing trees, as well as his plans to wire up the surrounding countryside.
But Liena quickly faces fierce opposition from both the local farmers’ union, lead by the forceful Cachan (Steve Driesen), and her conniving aunt (Rosalia Cuevas), who intends to quash the widow’s projects while consolidating power within the family. Such drawing room intrigues, depicted in stock scenes of rich people drinking tea and saying evil things, are given little dramatic impact, while Liena’s burgeoning affair with right-hand man Iban (Lespert) somewhat elevates the emotional temperature.
Filming in stark HD that does justice to the terrific exteriors but makes the interiors look too TV-ready, DP Emmanuel Soyer (The Other Son) takes advantage of the impressive scenery to give the action a much-needed push, especially when Liena and Iban’s affair takes flight. Yet the narrative, which constantly wavers between social drama, family feud and forbidden love story, never brings its elements together in a conclusive manner, with a final act that’s somehow both surprising and bland.
A solid talent who broke out two decades ago in Bertrand Tavernier’s Fresh Bait, Gillain aptly portrays Liena as a woman whose headstrongness gradually gives way to fragility, making rash decisions that come back to bite her in the later reels. She’s well accompanied by Lespert (Human Resources), who depicts Iban as a brawny working-class romantic a la Jean Gabin, complete with wallowing eyes, gruff country accent and a perfectly tattered corduroy jacket.
Production companies: Sesame Films, WFE
Cast: Marie Gillain, Jalil Lespert, Miou Miou, Swan Mirabeau
Director: Francois-Xavier Vives
Screenwriters: Francois-Xavier Vives, Camille Fontaine, Emmanuel Roy
Producers: Florence Borelly, Alain Berliner
Director of photography: Emmanuel Soyer
Production designers: Cathy Mananes, Mira Van Den Neste
Costume designer: Elisabeth Tavernier
Music: Franck Lebon
Editor: Isabelle Poudevigne
Sales Agent: Sesame Films
No rating, 94 minutes
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