'Marie's Story' ('Marie Heurtin'): Locarno Review

Marie Heurtin Still - P 2014
Courtesy of Festival del film Locarno

Marie Heurtin Still - P 2014

This biopic of the "French Helen Keller" is inspirational but also contains lighter touches

French actress Isabelle Carre plays a nun who is determined to teach a deaf and blind girl sign language in this biopic set in rural France at the turn of the century.

A French nun with the lovely if determined countenance of actress Isabelle Carre takes an uncontrollable deaf and blind country girl under her wing in Marie's Story (Marie Heurtin), a pastoral biopic set during the fin-de-siecle that portrays the saintly patience needed to teach sign language to someone who can't see. Based on a true story that's perhaps less famous than some others but just as intriguing, this serious-minded — no Helen Keller jokes, please — period film is nonetheless quite entertaining and, finally, moving, which suggests there could be some crossover potential beyond the usual Francophile suspects. It premiered in Locarno as a Piazza Grande title.

Carre earlier starred as a contemporary chocolate maker with social anxiety disorder who wants to fall in love in Ameris' Romantics Anonymous, and though the films' story details couldn't be more different, the two narratives are similar in that Carre's character again has to fight all odds to arrive at a fulfilling ending. Moreover, the tone of both films toggles between a kind of polished realism and occasionally light, even whimsical touches, ensuring a more mainstream sensibility than one would expect from films about anxiety disorders or the education of deaf and blind people.

Carre here plays Sister Marguerite, one of the religious women running the Larnay Institute near Poitiers in west-central France, where they look after deaf girls. But they've never had a deaf and blind girl before the arrival of 14-year-old Marie Heurtin (Ariana Rivoire) in 1885, and initially the unsurprisingly strict Mother Superior (Brigitte Catillon) refuses to take her in, though the determined Marguerite finally manages to have her way.

The devoted nun's first months with Marie, who is so constantly violent around everyone that she can't even be dressed, have her hair combed by others or eat at a table in the refectory, are described by Marguerite, heard in voiceover reading from her diary, as a "Calvary." (Marguerite's diary, if she had one, was never published but Marie's case became famous after Louis Arnould published his 1910 case study of her called Ames en prison, which translates as "Imprisoned Souls.")

Ameris presents the sister's efforts to get through to Marie in serio-comic mode, respectful of Marie's disabilities and personality but not afraid of the many humorous ways in which trying to teach someone who can neither hear nor see can go wrong. The classical score follows suit, underlining the comedy in the constant repetition of everyday tasks. As is appropriate for these scenes, there's not a lot of dialog.

Like Helen Keller's famous water-pump breakthrough — as seen in The Miracle Worker, with Anne Bancroft playing the teacher — there are a few pivotal moments in Heurtin's education, such as when she first grasps the concept of sign language and when she finally realizes Marguerite really just wants to help her. Refreshingly, Ameris, who co-wrote the film with his regular collaborator, Belgian screenwriter Philippe Blasband, avoid a big triumphant scene in which the cleanly scrubbed former wild girl is presented to the other nuns at the refectory. Instead, they opt for a wonderfully intimate scene with Marie, in her freshly pressed, powder-blue uniform, as she's led outside, where it's snowing. Though she can't see, she can clearly feel the descending snowflakes on her skin, and their slow and silent falling offer a perfect metaphor for the beauty of logic and order that has started to replace Marie's hysterical and uncontrollable behavior. A potentially maudlin scene in which Marie's parents come to visit their girl is likewise handled beautifully, as Ameris avoids facile sentiments without eschewing a sense of accomplishment and even catharsis.

The film's second half contains several scenes that feel a bit repetitive and since the first major stumbling block has been overcome, the motor of the drama becomes more diffuse. One source of drama is sister Marguerite's health, which causes her absence at the convent — and drives Marie crazy, since no one has explained Marguerite's departure and the deaf-and-blind girl feels she can't cope without the presence of her teacher, who's also become her constant (if entirely platonic) companion.

This in turn leads to a discussion of mortality between Marie and the returned Marguerite that's touching and insightful for both the two women and for the audience, as it brings the until-then somewhat fuzzy characters further into focus. As usual, Carre fully inhabits her character, and newcomer Rivoire, who's actually deaf but not blind, impresses as the character of the title.

Costume design underlines the rigidity and egalitarian nature of the sisters and their charges, which strikingly contrasts with production design and cinematography that emphasizes the beauty and unruliness of nature.

Production companies: Escazal Films, France 3, Rhone-Alpes Cinema
Cast: Isabelle Carre, Ariana Rivoire, Brigitte Catillon, Noemi Churlet, Laure Duthilleul, Gilles Treton
Director: Jean-Pierre Ameris
Screenwriters: Jean-Pierre Ameris, Philippe Blasband
Producer: Sophie Revil
Director of photography: Virginie Saint-Martin
Production designer: Franck Schwarz
Costume designer: Daniele Colin-Linard
Editor: Anne Souriau
Sales: Indie Sales
No rating, 93 minutes