Madame Solario: Film Review

Monotonous costume drama somewhat amplified by a splendid setting.

René Féret offers up a French-language adaptation of Gladys Huntington's bestselling 1956 novel.

PARIS--A stuffy period piece whose stunning decors are considerably more intriguing than the characters inhabiting them, Madame Solario is a disappointing follow-up to writer-director-producer René Féret’s 2011 sleeper hit, Mozart’s Sister. Once again featuring the filmmaker’s daughter in the lead role, this low budget, French-language adaptation of Gladys Huntington’s Lake Como-set novel plays like a Visconti film on Xanax, offering up a gorgeous backdrop for an otherwise yawn-inducing portrait of the rich and decadent.

The 1956 book caused a small sensation when it was originally published in the U.S., firstly because the author was anonymous (Huntington only revealed herself once success struck), and secondly because its depictions of incest, rape and suicide amongst a cadre of upper crust vacationers was something of a rarity at the time. However, whatever taboos were broken by the source material are pretty much inoculated by Féret’s laborious direction here, and Solario should only see minimal Francophone action outside its small-scale local release.

Set in a fabulous lakeside palazzo-cum-hotel circa 1907, the intrigue shifts points of view between a young British milquetoast, Bernard (Harry Lister Smith) and the supposedly enchanting Natalia Solario (Marie Féret), whom he quickly falls for, only to learn that the tight-lipped Madame harbors some very dark secrets.

These soon come to light when her brother, Eugene (Cyril Descours), unexpectedly shows up, preceded by rumors that he tried to kill their father-in-law, who supposedly made advances (and more) towards his sister. Also on hand is a filthy rich Russian (Andrei Zayats) whose short temper is only quelled by his ridiculous accent, and a giggly vixen (Salomé Stévenin) who annoyingly bursts into song as a means of seduction.

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If this sounds like a laundry list of drawing room clichés, they’re hardly elevated by a laconic style that tends to keep emotions at arm’s length, with the actors reciting their dialogues like they were reading from the Internal Revenue Code. Certainly, such distancing techniques were often used by the likes of Bresson or Rohmer, but the film has neither the cinematic grace of the former nor the light-hearted morality of the latter, and its depictions of corseted lust, despite the incest angle, barely raise an eyebrow.

As for the eponymous heroine, she’s referred to at times as “beautiful” and “magnificent,” but in reality has about as much charisma as a cardboard box. This is undoubtedly the result of Féret’s casting choice, which, like everything else in this one-man-band production–alongside his daughter, the director’s wife is credited as both editor and co-producer, while the movie was self-released via their own distribution outfit—certainly has its limitations.

What Féret does manage to capture are the truly magnificent vistas of Lake Como and its many villas, which are bathed in a golden, natural light that’s amplified by the use of 16mm film. This, along with the antique-filled, mauve-hewed interiors, makes for some pleasant eye candy to accompany an otherwise lackluster Swiss séjour.

Production companies: Les Films Aylne, Nord-Ouest

Cast: Marie Féret, Cyril Descours, Salomé Stévenin, Harry Lister Smith, Andrei Zayats

Director: René Féret

Screenwriter: René Féret, based on the novel by Gladys Huntington

Producers: René Féret, Fabienne Féret

Director of photography: Benjamin Echazarreta

Production designer: Veronica Fruhbrodt

Music: Patrick Dechorgnat

Costume designer: Dorothée Guiraud

Editor: Fabienne Féret

Sales: Les Films Alyne

No rating, 94 minutes