Domain -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
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NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

VIENNA -- An unusual family relationship is examined in writer-director Patric Chiha's enigmatic "Domain," providing Beatrice Dalle with the French arthouse equivalent of a golden-era Hollywood star-vehicle. As a fiercely intelligent but helplessly self-destructive mathematician who's a bit too chummy with her teenage nephew, Dalle shows that, in her mid-40s, she's lost little of her dangerously feral allure.

The film as a whole isn't without its faults, but there's enough here to detain admirers of contemporary Euro art-cinema - particularly those who want to be challenged but not too excessively shaken. Festival exposure for "Domain" may translate to selected playdates in Gallic-friendly locations.

The sentimental education of a young man has been a recurrent subject in French movies for decades, and the Austrian-born, Paris/Brussels-educated writer-director rises to the challenge of finding fresh angles. Making a promising transition after shorts, documentaries and a mid-length fiction to fully-fledged feature film, he focuses on 17-year-old Pierre (Isaie Sultan), a high-schooler in the venerable southwestern city of Bordeaux.

A quiet, bookish, good-looking lad, Pierre has the stereotypical teen's perfunctory dealings with his mother (Sylvie Rohrer), but has grown much closer to her black-sheep older sister Nadia. They meet nearly every day for long walks through parks and woods, Nadia dazzling and educating the kid with her unorthodox views, blunt articulacy and hard-won wisdom.

Pierre is coming to terms with his homosexuality, a development that causes much less trauma than his dawning awareness that booze-quaffing Nadia is drinking herself towards an early grave.

Chiha's preferred storytelling mode is elliptical and teasingly evasive. At first we're led to believe -- in a long riverside party-scene that kicks off proceedings on a disconcerting, intriguing note -- that the pair are romantically involved; then that they may be mother and son.

It's only after a couple of reels we realize that this one of the rare movies to concentrate on dealings between aunt and nephew. Their complicity gradually deepens into intimacy, but Chiha, wisely, pulls back when it looks like crossing a boundary into something more physical and incestuous.

Similarly refreshing is the Bordeaux setting: Chiha is much taken by the swirling waters of the river Garonne, symbolizing Pierre's view of adult world's eddying mysteries in general, and Nadia's complex psychology in particular.

Later scenes in and around a mountainous Austrian rehab clinic (the domain of the title) provide an effective, reflective change of pace, as captured via Pascal Poucet's poised, distanced camerawork. The classy, subdued visuals are complemented via the soundtrack's folk-tinged vocal stylings of "Milkymee" (the nom-de-disque of young chanteuse Emi Hanak).

Some will impatiently wonder whether there's actually that much substance beneath the movie's carefully-modulated style and its thematic unconventionality. Audiences anticipating a neatly-wrapped climax are in for a disappointment. As Pierre's no-nonsense mom cuttingly remarks about Nadia, "Her originality is an illusion."

Some dialogue does tip-toe from profundity into pretentiousness. Overall, however, there's more than enough going on in this particular "Domain" to make time spent there feel rewardingly worthwhile.

Venue: Vienna International Film Festival
Production companies: Aurora Films, WILDart film
Cast: Beatrice Dalle, Isaie Sultan, Alain Libolt, Sylvie Rohrer, Tatiana Vialle
Director/screenwriter: Patric Chiha
Producer: Charlotte Vincent
Director of photography: Pascal Poucet
Production designers: Celine Cayron, Maria Gruber
Music: Milkymee
Costume designer: Pierre Canitrot
Editor: Karina Ressler
Sales: Wide Management, Paris
No rating, 108 minutes