Belleville Tokyo: Film Review

Cool, spare portrayal of a marriage breakdown.

French director Elise Girard has drawn on her experience as press attaché for a chain of low-cost art house cinemas in Paris for the background to her portrayal of an impossible marriage.

PARIS — This cool and engaging debut feature, a tale of marital strife, makes a little go a long way, though certainly not as far as the Far East. Belleville Tokyo is striking for its minimalism, and while a comparison with such Japanese masters of the art as Ozu would be excessive, the movie will find admirers on the arthouse and festival circuits.

Director Elise Girard has drawn on her experience as press attaché for a chain of low-cost art house cinemas for the background to her portrayal of an impossible marriage.  Marie (Valerie Donzelli) is shattered when her husband Julien (Jeremie Elkaim), a film critic, informs her on a station platform, as he heads off on a foreign trip, that he is leaving her for someone else. Three months pregnant, she seeks consolation with her parents and in her work for Jean-Jacques and Jean-Loup (Philippe Nahon, Jean-Christophe Bouvet), the founder-owners of the Action cinemas (landmarks for all self-respecting Paris movie buffs).

She starts receiving phone calls from Julien, at first expressing concern for her, then telling her that he misses her, then asking for forgiveness. In next to no time he is back in the marital bed. The marriage appears to be back on the rails, but he remains tetchy and equivocal.

When he leaves for a two-week absence, ostensibly to attend a film festival in Tokyo, she discovers by accident that he has stayed in Paris to spend time in another woman's flat. His reassuring phone calls to her, supposedly from Tokyo, have in reality been made from a communications centre in the Paris district of Belleville.

When Julien returns, Marie pretends to be unaware of the deception and the spectator is kept guessing at her final intentions as the relationship slips into a series of verbal jousts worthy of Strindberg. Girard neither judges nor analyses motives, though it's clear that Julien is physically repelled by Marie's pregnancy but unable to accept the idea of himself as a wife-quitter.

The story is divided into monthly chapters running September through March. There's a minimum of camera movement, a minimal score and an appropriately minimal running time of 75 minutes. Donzelli and Elkaim are well matched to the material, a one-time real-life couple that starred in (and co-wrote) Valérie Donzelli's Declaration of War, screened at this year's Festival de Cannes. Lighter moments are provided by the cinema-owning duo, but otherwise the movie is a notable addition to the long, dismal chronicle of battles between the sexes.

Opened: In France: June 1
Dolce Vita Films, Alliance de Production Cinématographique
Cast: Valerie Donzelli, Jeremie Elkaim, Philippe Nahon, Jean-Christophe Bouvet, Dominique Cabrera
Director: Elise Girard
Screenwriters: Isabelle Pandazopoulos, Elise Girard
Producers: Natalie Irmer, Marc Irmer, Jean-Christophe Barret
Director of photography: Renato Berta
Music: Bertrand Burgalat
Costume designer: Nathalie Raoul
Editor: Jean-Christophe Hym
No rating, 75 minutes