'Maison du Bonheur': Film Review

Sofia Bohdanowicz
A slight but affectionate glimpse into one Parisian's life.
8/24/2018

Sofia Bohdanowicz's doc meets a Parisian woman with a very old-school approach to living.

Toronto documentarian Sofia Bohdanowicz had never met septuagenarian Juliane Sellam when she went to spend a month with her in Montmartre. She made the connection through a friend, and took the opportunity "to create some memories" that might blot out previous bad experiences in Paris. If she made new memories of her own, one wouldn't know from Maison du Bonheur, which contains nearly nothing but fragmentary impressions of her of-another-era host. Though those glimpses don't add up to what most people would call a portrait, they do evoke a life of old-fashioned female pampering, and contain just enough of Sellam's quirky personality to make those habits charming.

The apartment itself, from which the film gets its name, is something special — an old building with enviably high ceilings and giant windows that, thanks to our host's detail-oriented gardening, are always full of blooming geraniums. "To conclude," Sellam mischievously says of her gardening tips, "it's important to be patient with flowers because they're just like men."

We move from horticultural primping to the human variety. Sellam speaks of makeup (loves it) and plastic surgery (detests it). In fact, she refuses to do anything at all without having prepared her face. (Until she was talked down by a relative, she briefly tried to cancel her wedding right before the ceremony because she broke a nail.) We go with her to the hair salon, where she trusts the stylist she's used for decades to do anything he wants.

Vain rituals aside, much of the film consists of stand-alone vignettes — here's how you make bread for Shabbat; here's a long silent scene of Juliane eating a pastry — and anecdotes, like the tale of her first driving test. There's not much to that story, but that's kind of in the spirit of the film, which is here to listen — perhaps, we wonder, because the filmmaker is letting this project consume time that might be spent doing more stereotypically Parisian things.

Sellam is an astrologer, who studied with a famed star-reader, and as she talks of her introduction to the field, Bohdanowicz offers many close-ups of antique zodiac charts — her 16mm camera wanders much of the time, in fact (it takes a while for her to even show Juliane's face), in a way that complements the soundtrack's storytelling while maintaining a slight but unironic distance from it. By the time our host decides to read the filmmaker's own star chart, we may have already reached some of the same conclusions about her personality.

Near the end, this wisp of a film takes a detour. We meet Sellam's sister and her husband, who are a little amused at the whole film project. We hear the briefest bit about what their lives are like before the film follows a tangent: Sellam has mentioned how much they know about wine and food, so Maison now briefly becomes studious food porn. One by one, a different plate of terrine or rare cheese fills the screen, with the couple offering their tasting notes from offscreen. As if nothing could be more Parisian than that, Bohdanowicz quickly wraps things up and heads back to Toronto.

Director-director of photography-editor: Sofia Bohdanowicz
Producers: Sofia Bohdanowicz

In French
62 minutes