'A Sense of Wonder' ('Le Gout des merveilles'): Film Review

A Sense of Wonder Still - H 2016
Courtesy of Unifrance / David Koskas
A French "comedie sentimentale" that's familiar but warm.

Belgian star Virginie Efira ('It Boy') headlines this gently glowing concoction from French writer-director Eric Besnard.

A jolie French widow who has trouble keeping her late husband’s orchards afloat hits a human road bump at the start of the French dramedy A Sense of Wonder (Le Gout des merveilles). In this latest glossy concoction from screenwriter and occasional director Eric Besnard (Cash, Mes heros), the man on the road doesn’t seem to want her help and turns out to have Asperger’s Syndrome, though that doesn’t stop him from perhaps being the solution to a lot of the woman’s troubles.

A “comedie sentimentale” in the French manner, this is mostly predictable in terms of especially its romantic leanings but also refreshingly sincere and devoid of a lot — if not all — of the clichés that often crop up in films that feature a character with a form of autism. It is also an immensely warm film, with the radiant yet earthy countrywoman convincingly brought to life by Belgian star actress Virginie Efira (It Boy) and her newfound acquaintance with Asperger’s played with measured sensitivity by Benjamin Lavernhe, from the Comedie-française. Though not a major hit when it was released amid the year-end glut of films in France in December, the pic has found a new lease on life in Germany, where it is doing stellar business in arthouses this spring under the appropriately bucolic-cute moniker Pear Cake With Lavender (Birnenkuchen mit Lavendel), which also hints at the film’s Provence setting.

Louise Legrand (Efira) tries to continue to sell the fruit from her late husband’s orchards while also raising two children (Lucie Fagedet, Leo Lorleac’h) on her own. Her local banker (Valentin Merlet) keeps telling her all her round-the-clock efforts aren’t enough to get her out of her debts, however, and one of the few possibilities left seems to be to sell part of her land to her neighbor, Paul (Laurent Bateau), who’s also single and clearly has his eyes set on Louise. 

When Louise’s car hits Pierre (Lavernhe), she goes into panic mode but he doesn’t seem to care or even want her help. She insists on taking him home with her to see if he's OK, which is, so to speak, the beginning of a beautiful friendship. The film plays Pierre’s Asperger’s for gentle laughs but goes about it with enough delicacy to avoid turning him or his affliction into a laughing stock. Instead, Pierre’s presence brightens up the Legrand household in often familiar yet frequently touching ways, such as when he gives Louise not 37 roses but 37 bouquets for her birthday. It becomes clear the young man also cares for the Legrand legacy, the orchards, when one night he tries to save the upcoming harvest from the freezing cold in a visually gorgeous sequence that seems to have been inspired by a very similar event in Alfonso Arau’s vineyards-set Keanu Reeves vehicle A Walk in the Clouds.

Largely because of Lavernhe’s precise and unfussy performance, it is possible to spy Pierre’s kind soul hidden behind his sometimes awkward or antisocial behavior, tendency toward OCD and other assorted tics. It’s entirely plausible that Efira’s Louise might fall for someone like him, with her transformation from cash-strapped, no-nonsense farmwoman to wooed lady played gradually and with a lot of warmth.

Besnard is good at simply observing human behavior and interactions, but some of his plot points feel either overly contrived (such as Pierre’s criminal backstory) or dramatically undernourished (Pierre’s relationship with his doctor, played by the always welcome Hiam Abbass, and caretaker). Christophe Julien’s piano-driven score is sensitive but a tad generic, while something similar could be said about the Beatrix Potter-y production design from Bertrand Seitz, which was shot by cinematographer Philippe Guilbert in ways that occasionally feel more like pastoral porn than something resembling an actual story set in the actual French countryside. This means that the economic problems sketched at the outset remain more theoretical than actually visible.

For the record: Le Gout des merveilles literally translates as “The Taste of Wonders” and “The Taste of merveilles,” with the latter a kind of fried-dough confection normally made for Mardi Gras in the southwest of France that Louise actually bakes in the film.

Production companies: Camera One, Pulsar Productions, UGC
Cast: Virginie Efira, Benjamin Lavernhe, Lucie Fagedet, Leo Lorleac’h, Herve Pierre, Hiam Abbass, Laurent Bateau, Valentin Merlet
Writer-director: Eric Besnard
Producers: Patrice Ledoux, Michel Seydoux
Director of photography: Philippe Guilbert
Production designer: Bertrand Seitz
Costume designer: Elisabeth Rousseau
Editor: Yann Dedet
Music: Christophe Julien
Casting: David Bertrand
Sales: TF1 International

Not rated, 100 minutes