'From the Land of the Moon' ('Mal de pierres'): Cannes Review

Well-heeled French cinema with a standout Cotillard.

Marion Cotillard plays a passionate married woman consumed with sexual desire for Indochina veteran Louis Garrel in Nicole Garcia’s romantic character study.

As most viewers are aware, the 1950s were not the best years to be a Western woman. With the sexual revolution more than a decade away, a female who challenged the norms was ostracized from polite society or married off to the first comer, like Marion Cotillard’s shameless country girl burning for sexual fulfillment in From the Land of the Moon (Mal de pierres). Though she's too self-centered and off-the-rails to love, her vibrant, intensely involving performance saves the day for director Nicole Garcia, who is returning to Cannes competition 10 years after Charlie Says. This smoothly told tale is more of a character study than a romance, yet should still draw fans of romance fiction who will particularly appreciate Louis Garrel in the role of the dashing lieutenant Andre Sauvage.

Though the story is about an unrepentant rebel, the message is anti-revolutionary, since the drift of the film is toward normalization and the realization that there’s no place like home. Garcia and Jacques Fieschi’s screenplay, based on an award-winning best-seller by Italian writer Milena Agus, eventually shows how the protag’s search for strong feelings and emotions prevents her from seeing the great love she already has. But the soul of the film lies in watching her stumble: immaturely making mistakes and obstinately expressing her sexual needs, even though the results are invariably bad. In other words, there’s a lot here that modern viewers can relate to.

Like a Madame Bovary updated to the 20th century, Gabrielle (Cotillard) is a romantic country girl from a well-off family, and she is in love with sex. She is introduced soothing herself in the river with uplifted skirts and no undies. One gets the idea. At the end of her rope, kneeling in church before the Crucifixion, she intently asks Jesus for “the main thing”, which in her mind is sexual satisfaction with a man. Absolutely no sign of Catholic guilt here.

Though the farmhands who work the fields of lavender buzzing with honey bees are no prudes, she goes too far when she exhibits herself naked to them. Her one-track mind is embarrassing even to watch onscreen, and after she throws herself at a married schoolteacher with nymphomaniacal intent, and in public to boot, her mother sternly gives her a choice. Marriage, or the madhouse.

They pick a poor Spanish bricklayer, Jose (Alex Brendemuhl, who played the vet in Truman.) He has had to move to France after fighting for Franco, and the family strikes a deal to set him up in business if he takes the girl off their hands. Though a sober man of few words, he clearly likes strong-willed rebel. He’s much easier to sympathize with than headstrong Gabrielle, who makes it clear she won’t be having sex with him but will be looking elsewhere for better opportunities, merci.

The film’s original title, The Stone Sickness, refers to Gabrielle’s painful kidney stones, an apt metaphor for her tormented love life. When Jose sends her off to an expensive Swiss clinic for treatment, she resists at first. (“Who says I want to be cured?”) But it’s always better than the lobotomy a French doctor suggests as an alternative. In this Magic Mountain setting, she meets Lt. Andre (Garrel), irresistible but gravely ill after returning from France’s war in Indochina, and her lust for life revives along with her dangerous flights of fantasy. In addition to being handsome, noble, brave and vulnerable on account of his serious illness, Lt. Andre also shares Gabrielle’s passion for the piano, and his melancholy rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Juin — Barcarolle provides a welcome interruption to composer Daniel Pemberton’s violin-heavy score. The tune will play an important part in her son’s career and the denouement.

Cotillard’s performance is luminous throughout, enriching the willful heroine with the depth of a single obsession. However, it’s still hard to identify or even like Gabrielle, due to her total disregard for other people’s feelings. One especially pities poor Jose, who is forced to witness his wife’s obsessions and even further them. But are Gabrielle and Andre a real item, or is their love story destined for tragedy? The ending hinges on a surprising revelation and concludes the tale on a satisfying, if conservative, note.

Production companies: Studiocanal, Les Productions du Tresor

Cast:  Marion Cotillard, Louis Garrel, Alex Brendemuhl, Brigitte Rouan, Victoire Du Bois, Aloise Sauvage, Daniel Para, Jihwan Kim, Victor Quilichini

Director: Nicole Garcia

Screenwriters: Nicole Garcia, Jacques Fieschi, based on a novel by Milena Agus

Producer: Alain Attal 

Director of photography: Christophe Beaucarne

Production designer: Arnaud de Moleron

Costume designer: Catherine Leterrier

Editor: Simon Jacquet

Music: Daniel Pemberton

Casting directors: Stephane Batut, Richard Rousseau

World sales: Studio Canal 

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (competing)

116 minutes