'Amanda': Film Review | Venice 2018

A slight take on heavy subject matter.

A young man and his 7-year-old niece struggle with the aftermath of a terrorist attack in this Venice premiere from French director Mikhael Hers.

A low-key family drama with a shattering tragedy at its heart, Amanda is a quietly moving celebration of human resilience from French writer-director Mikhael Hers. World premiering today in Venice, this Parisian chamber piece has some of the texture of vintage Eric Rohmer, but little of his forensic observational eye. Timely themes and charming performances, especially from cherubic young screen novice Isaure Multrier, will likely generate mild festival buzz and modest domestic box office. But the overall package is a little too pedestrian to make much impact beyond the Gallic world, with tasteful understatement shading into bloodless blandness in places.

Sulky, soulful 24-year-old Parisian David (Vincent Lacoste) works two jobs as a tree surgeon and tenant liaison for the landlords of his apartment block. His older sister Sandrine (Ophelia Kolb) is a single mom to cute 7-year-old Amanda (moon-faced blond cherub Multrier). Sandrine springs a plan on David to take him to the Wimbledon tennis tournament in London, where she secretly hopes to engineer a reconciliation with their estranged English mother, Alison (Greta Scacchi). Politely but firmly, David declines the family reunion. After 20 years with no maternal contact, he believes the time for healing is long past.

Meanwhile, David’s light flirtation with his new neighbor Lena (Stacy Martin) starts to blossom into a full romance. Life is sweet, but it cannot last. At the end of a breezy bicycle ride to a picnic in a Parisian park, David's weightless playboy existence suddenly takes a nightmarish turn. He arrives at the park shortly after a terrorist massacre, the green lawns soaked in blood, the picture-postcard view strewn with dead bodies. Sandrine has been killed, while Lena is injured but still alive. Paris goes into lockdown mode, the streets deserted, armed police everywhere.

After the attack, callow young David is abruptly forced to take on some grueling adult responsibilities, starting with the terrible duty of telling Amanda that her mommy is never coming home. After some deliberation, he also applies for legal guardianship over his niece as they begin to forge an uneasy life together. At the same time, the wounded Lena retreats to her family home in southern France, effectively drawing the curtain on her relationship with David.

Despite the bloody events at its center, Amanda is mostly composed of intimate observations and tender domestic exchanges. Hers has stated his intention to "depressurize the cabin" with his film by highlighting the human stories behind the terror attacks that have shaken his home city of Paris in recent years. He spends no time ruminating on the political context or root causes of terrorism, only on its emotional aftershocks and the gradual return to healing normality that follows. The small-scale narrative he weaves is tender and mournful in places, but oddly devoid of passion or psychological nuance. The closing scenes, in which David makes a concerted effort to grow up and heal old wounds, feel stilted and glib. At 106 minutes, this thin story also drags in places.

In its favor, Amanda boasts subtle, sensitive lead performances from Lacoste and Multrier, who has a rare easy naturalism for such a young performer. Paris is also one of the story’s main characters. Hers shoots his home city in classic cine-verite style, drawing on established movie tropes about the French capital as a boho utopia populated by skinny young poets falling in love, drinking red wine, pedaling bicycles through sun-dappled streets and chain-smoking elegantly in a selection of chic matelot sweaters. All that is lacking here is ripe cheese and accordion music. These stylistic decisions feel lazy and cliched, but they could equally be seen as deliberate appeals to comforting familiarity in volatile times. A pleasantly banal aesthetic for a pleasantly banal film.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Orizzonti)
Production companies: Nord-Ouest Films, Arte France Cinema
Cast: Vincent Lacoste, Isaure Multrier, Stacy Martin, Ophelia Kolb, Marianne Basler, Greta Scacchi
Director: Mikhael Hers
Screenwriters: Mikhael Hers, Maud Ameline
Producers: Pierre Guyard, Christophe Rossignon, Philip Boeffard, Olivier Pere, Remi Burah
Cinematographer: Sebastien Buchmann
Editor: Marion Monnier
Music: Anton Sanko
Sales company: MK2
106 minutes