The House



San Sebastian Film Festival

SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain -- Peruvian-born French director Manuel Poirier has an undoubted obsession for the French countryside in most of his films including "Western," which earned him a Jury Prize in Cannes 10 years ago. Now comes "The House," a cleverly built character study of two men and two women in their relation to a country cottage. The film, which opened in Paris in late August, competes for the Golden Shell in San Sebastian.

The film has an indubitable outmoded charm, but the path towards its moving ending is a long one for impatient audiences, making international market perspectives quite limited. "The House" more likely will tour film festivals as an example of a classical French romantic drama.

Poirier, who wrote the script, follows the inner journey of Malo, owner of a small printing company, at a key moment of his life as he is about to divorce and is for the first time away from his three children. While visiting a country house in company of his friend Remi, he falls upon a letter written by a child, Cloe, to her father and takes it with him.

He contacts the owners, two sisters who are forced to sell the house at an auction to pay their late father's debts. Malo starts falling in love with the younger sister (who happens to be Cloe), and tries to buy the house in order to allow her to keep it.

This very minimalist story establishes both the charm and the limits of the film. Poirier shows a sensitive touch for framing and for imposing a delicate, slow pace but it's a pace that can easily irritate some.

The two best sequences are situated towards the end of the film, both genuinely compelling and intensely acted between Malo (Sergi Lopez) and Cloe (Berenice Bejo). The first is the auction scene, in which Malo feels obliged to bid an unexpected sum. Deliberately theatrical, it contrasts Cloe's despair to see her house (hence her childhood memories) escape her to Malo's face as he is overwhelmed by the situation. This offers a light counterpoint to a dramatic moment. Then comes the two lovers' reunion at Malo's place, in which Poirier composes a choreographic movement within a confined space to express the intensity of their relationship.

Lopez, a well-known Catalan actor who divides his career between French and Spanish stage and screen, is once again impressive in showing the inner wounds of a middle-aged man who realizes this turn may be crucial in his life. It is no surprise that this ninth collaboration with the director works smoothly.

Bejo, who had her first hit in "OSS 117" last year, shows the range of her talent as her character gives in to long-restrained emotions and wonderfully expresses sorrow or incipient love with a simple eye blink.

Worth mentioning is the music partly composed by Canadian singer Lhasa, which adds passion to this otherwise dry slice of lives likely to remind French cinema buffs of Eric Rohmer's sentimental studies -- without reaching Rohmer's standard of artistic purity.

Diaphana Prods.
Writer/director: Manuel Poirier
Producer: Michel Saint-Jean
Director of photography: Pierre Milon
Production designer: Capucine Flavin
Music: Lhasa, Jean Massicotte
Costume designer: Stephanie Watrignant
Editor: Simon Jacquet
Malo: Sergi Lopez
Remi: Bruno Salomone
Cloe: Berenice Bejo
Laura: Barbara Schulz
Running time -- 96 minutes
No MPAA rating
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