'Marguerite & Julien': Cannes Review

Only in France: A fairy tale about incestuous siblings

Valerie Donzelli's latest directorial effort casts her frequent muse, Jeremie Elkaim, opposite Anais Demoustier in a story of two siblings who fall passionately in love

Two aristocratic siblings fall in love in an undefined though clearly anachronistic past in Marguerite & Julien, from actress-director Valerie Donzelli. This is the filmmaker’s first film in the Cannes competition, though she did get a taste of the Croisette when her hit Declaration of War opened the Critics’ Week in 2011. However, her latest, an ambitiously mounted but wildly uneven story of incest told in the form of a fairy tale to children -- yes, really -- has a snowball’s chance in hell of being as rapturously received across the board. That said, the fact the film’s (partly) based on a screenplay that Jean Gruault wrote for Francois Truffaut in the 1970s will add interest for film buffs, while local familiarity with Juliette Benzoni’s Florentine novels, which were also inspired by the story of the Ravalet siblings and which were made into a TV series in 1991, can only help when the film opens in France Sept. 30. Overseas, this’ll be strictly a niche item, though perhaps one with some cult potential.

In reworking Gruault’s historical epic, Donzelli and her co-screenwriter and muse, Jeremie Elkaim, turned what was Julien et Marguerite into Marguerite & Julien, already signaling a different perspective on the story. But the biggest change is no doubt the fact that this yarn, which is said to have actually occurred in the late 16th century, became something of a fantasy romance, albeit one that happens to be an incestuous one.

Rather daringly -- some might argue, problematically -- the entire story is recounted to a group of small children by a young woman (Esther Garrel, Louis’s sibling) who works at an orphanage. These scenes, though new additions to the screenplay, feel the most Truffaut-like, bringing to mind the exploits of the pint-sized protagonists from The 400 Blows all the way through to Small Change. However, in this particular context, it feels rather odd that neither the young woman nor the children seem to find the verboten aspect of the love story they're being told problematic in any way, which makes the film play more like a sci-fi film than a historical fantasy, at least from an ethical point of view.

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From the first scene, in which helicopters and sirens are heard, it’s also clear there’s no attempt at historical accuracy -- the helicopters are a clear nod to Jacques Demy’s equally bonkers medieval-themed musical Donkey Skin, with Catherine Deneuve -- with cameras, radios and people playing foosball popping up in a version of France where the members of the aristocracy all live in fine castles and there’s still a king (the last one was executed in 1793).

The film starts with the childhood of the siblings and includes what’s certainly among the most exciting and complex things that Donzelli’s ever filmed: a chase on horseback with the two children, suggestively staged and beautifully shot in a combination of long-shots and medium close-ups by ace cinematographer Celine Bozon. Here and elsewhere in this film full of cinematic tricks, it is clear that Donzelli has left the rough-and-tumble, almost do-it-yourself quality of her previous features behind for something that's big-budget slick. The horse-chase sequence also further highlights this is not a traditional fairy tale, as the ending to this sequence makes clear, with little Marguerite’s gravely hurt animal shot practically in front of the children.  

When Julien comes back from years of schooling abroad and he suddenly looks like Elkaim (who’s 36 in real life but here passes for someone much younger) and Marguerite (Demoustier) can’t believe her beloved brother is finally back. Their older sibling, Philippe (Bastien Bouillon, another Donzelli regular), barely gets a “hello” from her but she’s all over her favorite brother, with both Marguerite and Julien using jealousy as a way to figure out how the other is really feeling about their relationship. Things turn from scheming and playful to erotic during a fancy dinner party that their parents (Frederic Pierrot, Aurelia Petit) are throwing and from which they escape to enjoy each other’s company -- and bodies.

Julien finally seems scared of his own, overwhelmingly amorous feelings for his sister and wants to flee and this is where things get complicated for both Marguerite and Donzelli. The female protagonist finds herself forced to wed a much older suitor, Lefebvre (Raoul Fernandez), while Donzelli needs to address what the film really wants to say about incest but instead ends up going back and forth between having audiences root for the pretty protagonists to be together and siding with the lovable parents, the slightly creepy clergy and faceless society at large who clearly believe the opposite. The film’s a total missed opportunity when it comes to addressing, for example, the impossible choice between the love of a mother for her offspring and the clear taboos of society, with Madame de Ravalet’s behavior unexplained and even contradictory from scene to scene.

The film’s also not aided by the fact it’s almost entirely narrated as a story to children, which further reduces the characters, who thus don’t have a lot of direct dialog, to two-dimensional beings. With a complex and potentially interesting subject such as this one, it might’ve helped if people could explain their point of view or feelings clearer and more often.

Ideally cast, Demoustier is having a banner year as the French poster child for free love in films such as The New Girlfriend, in which a cross-dresser helps her get in touch with her feminine side; All About Them, in which she’s part of a ménage à trois; Caprice, in which she plays a guy’s mistress and now this film. Here too, it’s hard not to fall in love with her. Meanwhile, Elkaim has the more difficult task as the more rational of the two but, given the limitations of the writing, acquits himself quite admirably. The supporting cast is generally fine, with Geraldine Chaplin chewing her way through the castle-filled scenery as Lefebvre’s malevolent mother while Donzelli and Elkaim’s own son, Gabriel Elkaim, has a cute walk-on as a chimney sweep who helps Julien communicate with Marguerite.    

The production design from Manu de Chauvigny, with its incongruous jumble of influences, is playful and inventive, if not something everyone in the audience will warm to. Without a doubt, the standout craft contribution comes from regular Donzelli collaborator Elisabeth Mehu, who first dressed Elkhaim in his breakout role in 2000’s Come Undone and whose costumes manage the feat of seeming both aristocratic and catwalk-ready.

Production companies: Rectangle Productions, Wild Bunch, Orange Studio, Scope Pictures, Framboise Productions

Cast: Anais Demoustier, Jeremie Elkaim, Frederic Pierrot, Aurelia Petit, Raoul Fernandez, Geraldine Chaplin, Catherine Mouchet, Bastien Bouillon, Sami Frey, Alice de Lenquesaing, Esther Garrel

Director: Valerie Donzelli

Screenplay: Valerie Donzelli, Jeremie Elkaim, based on a story and screenplay by Jean Gruault

Producers: Edouard Weil, Alice Girard

Director of photography: Celine Bozon

Production designer: Manu de Chauvigny

Costume designer: Elisabeth Mehu

Editor: Pauline Gaillard

Music: Yuksek

Casting: Antoinette Boulat

Sales: Wild Bunch / Orange Studio

No rating, 108 minutes