Belle du Seigneur: Film Review

Belle du Seigneur Still H
Handsomely mounted period piece is both bloated and bland.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Natalia Vodianova star in this first ever adaptation of Albert Cohen's famous novel, about a heated love affair set on the brink of the Second World War.

PARIS -- Ever since its publication in 1968, Swiss writer Albert Cohen’s colossal 1000-page novel Belle du Seigneur has been deemed an unfilmable piece of literature. Nearly half a century later, it’s finally been brought to the big screen by the late writer-director Glenio Bonder, in a “freely adapted” English-language version starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Match Point) and Russian supermodel Natalia Vodianova. Unfortunately, and despite some flashy period eye-candy, those who feared the worst will definitely get what they expected from this bland and insufferable slice of Europudding, which won’t go down smoothly anywhere outside late-night cable.

Shot back in late 2010, but delayed for several years due to the Brazilian-born Bonder’s untimely death during post-production, the film is receiving a modest release in France (where Cohen’s books are still popular), but shouldn’t see much traction elsewhere beyond a few Francophone slots and VOD outlets.

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And it’s easy to see why: This is basically one of those costumed co-productions where everyone speaks English with varying accents (some of them unintelligible); where the characters have lots of sex and then brood about it afterwards in their boudoirs; where the dialog includes gems like “Do you want me to unleash my breasts on this man?” and “You paint everything with your sexuality!”; where a guy actually gets manually stimulated while watching newsreels of Hitler and Mussolini; and where the story turns in so many circles that, when the protagonists seem to be contemplating suicide, you can only hope they’ll have the guts to go through with it.

Not that Cohen was ever trying to please an audience with his sprawling tale of a Jewish officer in the League of Nations named Solal (Rhys Meyers) who, as Fascism tightens its grip on Europe (the action is set in 1936-37), embarks on a wild and torturous affair with the married beauty Ariane (Vodianova), taking her on an extended leave of absence which has them making love, riding horses and busting up furniture in a series of five-star hotels and palaces.

The novel is filled with lengthy ruminations on desire, obsession, music, art, literature and what it means to be Jewish in a place where Jews will soon be exterminated on a massive scale, with most of the drama taking place inside the characters’ minds. So while Belle du Seigneur is by no means an easy text to condense and adapt into a 100-minute movie, Bonder mistakenly opted to concentrate on the multifarious bedroom trysts between Solal and Ariane, turning Cohen’s deeply affecting prose into an R-rated melodrama that could only be carried by outstanding performances from its leads.

Yet the cast is far from being up to the challenge, with Rhys Meyers offering up a heavily brooding one-note performance, and Vodianova incapable of playing a single scene convincingly, her dialog often post-synchronized but none the more palatable for it, while her heavy Slavic accent is never justified by the narrative. Supporting players include Marianne Faithfull as Ariane’s . . . er, faithful chambermaid, Ed Stoppard (The Pianist) as her milquetoast and utterly oblivious husband, and former French minister Jack Lang in a cameo appearance -- a particularly risible bit of background casting.

The attractive stars, at least, are surrounded by even more attractive Italian and Swiss locations -- including the original League of Nations headquarters in Geneva -- which are captured in stately widescreen compositions by DP Eduardo Serra (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows). Accompanying all the picturesque settings is a lush score by Gabriel Yared (A Royal Affair, The Talented Mr. Ripley), which is used repeatedly and unremittingly, but can never really compensate for the sheer lack of emotion on display.

Production companies: TNVO Delux Productions, BDS
Cast: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Natalia Vodianova, Marianne Faithfull, Ed Stoppard
Director, screenwriter: Glenio Bonder, freely inspired by the novel by Albert Cohen
Producers: Thierry de Navacelle, Jimmy de Brabant
Executive producers: Bob Bellion, Herve Clerc, Glenio Bonder, David Rogers, Jason Garret
Director of photography: Eduardo Serra
Production designer: Christina Schaffer
Costume designer: Magdalena Labuz
Music: Gabriel Yared
Editor: Philippe Ravoet
Sales Agent: Stealth Media Group
No rating, 104 minutes