A Castle in Italy: Cannes Review

A Castle in Italy

A Castle in Italy (Un Chateau en Italie), from director Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, follows an the troubles of an Italian family after they sell their home.

Valeria Bruni Tedeschi's big-screen roman a clef drowns its sincerity in self-consciousness.

Valeria Bruni Tedeschi once again gets personal as she directs, co-writes, and stars in her third film, premiering in competition at Cannes.

CANNES – There’s clearly a deep personal investment and considerable self-exposure in Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s A Castle in Italy (Un Chateau en Italie), but that doesn’t make its precious affectations any easier to take. The third feature from the Italian-French actress-turned-director is a semi-autobiographical reflection on love, death and a retreating world of privilege that signals its debt to The Cherry Orchard with the unsubtle thud of a falling tree -- literally.

While a character inspired by the director’s famous sister, the former French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, is notably missing, other aspects of the story draw directly from real life. Bruni Tedeschi’s partner until last year, Louis Garrel, plays her character’s younger lover, who also happens to be an actor and son of a filmmaker; her mother Marisa Borini appears as her surviving parent; and the death of her brother in 2006 from AIDS complications is depicted.

The generous applause at the film’s Cannes premiere may in part have been fueled by the knowledge that this was obviously a cathartic exploration of family history. Beyond the Croisette bubble, however, it’s hard to imagine many audiences warming to these bourgeois folks.

As scripted by Bruni Tedeschi with regular collaborators Agnes de Sacy and Noemie Lvovsky, the film sacrifices emotional verisimilitude in favor of artsy mannerism. The jittery storytelling and indifference toward illuminating character or plot detail would already be tiresome even without the gratingly actor-y performances, the director herself being the main offender.

The 43-year-old daughter of a once-powerful Northern Italian industrialist family, Louise (Bruni Tedeschi) is more or less content with her single life in Paris. Walking through the woods one day after visiting a monastery, she meets Nathan (Garrel), who has stomped off to brood after shooting a scene on his father’s movie. Recognizing her from a brief screen career that she has since abandoned, he comes on strong. She resists at first but eventually opens her heart and her blossoming midlife crisis to him.

During a trip back to her childhood home in Piedmont, Louise seems no more inclined to address the dire financial situation of her late father’s estate than either her eccentric mother (Borini) or her adored older brother Ludovic (Filippo Timi). The upkeep on the family’s grand villa is crippling and taxes are mounting. But nobody seems keen on the suggestion of the local mayor (Silvio Orlando) to open the castle to paying visitors, let alone sell their valuable Brueghel canvas. His health steadily deteriorating, Ludovic is especially unwilling to let go of the past.

Dividing the action into chapters according to the seasons, Bruni Tedeschi patches together a choppy chronicle of Louise’s on-off relationship with moody Nathan; her decision to have a child; Ludovic’s physical decline; and the steps that Louise and her mother take, without her dying brother’s knowledge, to solve the cash crisis in Italy. An ambiguous past association between Louise and Nathan’s father (Andre Wilms) also comes to light.

Xavier Beauvois turns up as a mooching friend from the past, both envious of and besotted by Louise and Ludovic. However, his banal observations do nothing to expand this hermetic little movie’s uninteresting world. There are moments of poignancy, but the Chekhovian balance of melancholy drama and whimsical comedy is a tricky one that seems beyond this director’s grasp.

Pretty enough, though lacking any real visual distinction, the film has minimal narrative momentum. It’s also surprisingly unemotional considering the sorrows endured by its characters and the close parallels with the director’s own life.

That remoteness is in large part because the acting almost without exception goes for either overwrought intensity or studied charm. Bruni Tedeschi’s alternately teary-eyed, giggly and hysterical neuroticism, in particular, borders on self-parody. There are simpler pleasures to be found in a brief appearance by Omar Sharif as himself, gracing the film with a gentlemanly smile.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)

Cast: Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Louis Garrel, Filippo Timi, Marisa Borini, Xavier Beauvois, Celine Sallette, Andre Wilms, Marie Riviere, Gerard Falce, Pippo Delbondo, Silvio Orlando, Omar Sharif

Production companies: SBS Productions, Arte France Cinema, Delta Cinema

Director: Valeria Bruni Tedeschi

Screenwriters: Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Agnes de Sacy, Noemie Lvovsky

Producer: Said Ben Said

Director of photography: Jeanne Lapoirie

Production designer: Emmanuelle Duplay

Editors: Laure Gardette, Francesca Calvelli

Costume designer: Caroline de Vivaise

Sales: Films Distribution, Paris

No rating, 104 minutes