'An Impossible Love' ('Un amour impossible'): Film Review

An intimate, well-played if overstretched family saga.

Virginie Efira ('Elle') and Niels Schneider ('Polina') headline Catherine Corsini’s adaptation of the best-selling novel by Christine Angot.

French writer Christine Angot is well-known in her homeland for a series of autobiographical books (including L’Inceste, Pourquoi le Bresil? and Rendez-vous) that chronicle the abuse she suffered as a child and the life she’s built in the wake of trauma. Filled with searingly honest accounts of her relationships, sexual experiences and psychological states past and present, Angot’s emotionally puissant first-person confessions return time and again to the disturbing events of her youth, reflecting on how they have shaped her evolution as an author and woman.

(In France, Angot is also a highly mediatized public intellectual who has made several controversial television appearances over the course of her career. Film lovers got a taste of her piercing prose last year in the script she co-wrote for Claire Denis’ anti-romantic comedy Let the Sunshine In.)

In An Impossible Love (Un amour impossible), which was adapted from Angot’s 2015 best-seller of the same title, director Catherine Corsini depicts the writer’s tumultuous childhood through the point of view of her mother, Rachel — beautifully played by Belgian star Virginie Efira (Victoria, Elle and Paul Verhoeven’s upcoming Benedetta).

Beginning in 1960 and running all the way to the year 2000, we follow small-town gal Rachel as she falls head over heels for a seductive Parisian translator, Philippe (Niels Schneider), and then spends the rest of her life trying to make something of their on-and-off (mostly off) affair, which leaves her pregnant and, eventually, a single mother struggling to get by.

Yet despite the hardships she faces, the brave, resourceful Rachel manages to build a decent home for herself and daughter, Chantal (played by four different actresses to cover each decade), who grows up to be a smart and precocious young woman. And then Philippe comes back into the picture, leading to disastrous consequences.

Corsini, who co-adapted the script with Laurette Polmanss, follows Rachel’s story chronologically, with a recurring voiceover sounding out Angot’s observations about what’s happening onscreen. The method, while poignant in places, is also too literary at times, sticking very closely to the text and overstaying its welcome at 135 minutes — especially during a finale where singer-actress Jehnny Beth (frontwoman of the postpunk group Savages) plays a grown-up Chantal and Christine Angot lookalike, mimicking the writer’s tics and speech inflections. It’s as if Corsini felt the need to cross every t and dot every i, rather than letting the viewer do some of the work.

But much of the first half of the movie, where we follow Rachel as she falls under Philippe’s intellectual and sexual spell, and then has to deal with the fallout of their brief if passionate union, can be fairly intoxicating. Efira, who’s stepped up her game in recent films like Joachim Lafosse’s Keep Going and Justine Triet’s Victoria, portrays Angot’s mother as a strong-willed, hardworking woman of Jewish origin raising Chantal on her own while managing to build a steady career in the process.

Yet her many accomplishments are undercut by Philippe’s attitude, which can be both charming and alarming: One minute the Parisian pretty boy seems infatuated with his sweet country girl — they first meet in Rachel’s hometown of Chateauroux, where Philippe is sent to work as an army translator — and the next he tells her he can neither marry her nor provide for their baby, even if he has the means to do so.

Schneider (Polina, Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats) is equally arresting as an elusive, bookish outsider who seems sincere in his love for Rachel, at least initially, but is unable to reconcile that with their differences in education and family standing.

Indeed, as the film progresses and Philippe’s behavior grows more problematic — until it becomes downright despicable — the class barrier that separates him from Rachel seems insurmountable, which is something an older and wiser Chantal points out during an extended sit-down she has with her mother in the film’s closing reel.

The “impossible love” of the title is, therefore, one of two people in a French society that was still heavily cut along class lines in the 1960s and '70s, when the bulk of the story takes place. But it’s also the twisted, impossible-to-fathom love that Philippe holds for his daughter, and that will have deep-seated repercussions for all involved.

Corsini directs in a fluid manner that highlights the simple beauty of the countryside — a style already evident in her 2015 lesbian romance, Summertime — with DP Jeanne Lapoirie (BPM) returning to provide a warm color palette and production designer Toma Baqueni (Ismael’s Ghosts) keeping the decors modest yet welcoming, whether it’s Rachel’s country home or the public housing flat they move to later on. By contrast, the few glimpses we get of Philippe’s world are cold and uninviting, especially the Parisian offices where Rachel asks his dismissive father for support.

Released locally after bypassing the fest circuit, An Impossible Love has less box-office potential than Summertime, which grossed nearly $4 million worldwide. Still, it gives overseas audiences the chance to sample Angot’s writing, which has been popular in France for two decades and deserves to be discovered abroad — even if it winds up overshadowing a movie that both does the author justice and sticks too close to the page.

Production companies: Chaz Productions, France 3 Cinema, Artemis Productions, Le Pacte Voo & BETV, RTBF, Shelter Prod
Cast: Virginie Efira, Niels Schneider, Jehnny Beth, Estelle Lescure, Ambre Hasaj, Sasha Allessandri-Torres Garcia
Director: Catherine Corsini
Screenwriters: Catherine Corsini, Laurette Polmanss, based on the novel by Christine Angot
Producer: Elisabeth Perez
Director of photography: Jeanne Lapoirie
Production designer: Toma Baqueni
Costume designer: Virginie Montel
Editor: Frederic Baillehaiche
Composer: Gregoire Hetzel
Casting director: Sarah Teper
Sales: Le Pacte

In French
135 minutes