'Plonger': Film Review | TIFF 2017

Courtesy of TIFF

Actress turned director Melanie Laurent ('Inglourious Basterds', 'Breathe') unveiled her latest feature as a Special Presentation in Toronto.

Plonger means “to dive” in French, and actress-director Melanie Laurent’s latest film is — literally, symbolically and all-too-obviously metaphorically — about sinking as low as possible, hitting rock bottom and then rising once again to the surface.

Laced with stylistic flourishes and a doom-laden atmosphere, this moody, heavy-handed tale of mourning and loss never quite reaches its intended emotional catharsis, even if there's an impressive scope to what Laurent is trying to accomplish. For her fourth stint at the helm following the well-received Breathe and the documentary hit Tomorrow, she still seems to be eagerly searching for her voice, which will next be heard in the upcoming Nic Pizzolatto-penned thriller, Galveston.

Adapted from the novel by Christophe Ono-dit-Biot, the story is told through a mix of flashbacks and Malick-ian sequences that try to convey the deep suffering of its lead character: Cesar (Gilles Lellouche), a 40-something French journalist who has seen some tough times, including once being kidnapped in Iraq, but has now settled down to a leisurely gig as a culture writer. His true focus, though, is the younger and passionate Spanish photographer, Paz (Maria Valverde), who he met at an art show, pursued all the way to her hometown and now has installed in his dreary Paris apartment.

The film kicks off with a series of impressionistic scenes showing the couple falling in love, frolicking-a-plenty and enjoying an early honeymoon that will soon be followed by lots of bickering and unhappiness once they move in together during what seems like the rainiest season in French history. It all happens quite fast and stretches credulity at times — we’re supposed to believe the two are madly in love but their love story seems contrived, like it’s a means to an end rather than the real thing.

That end gradually comes into focus when Paz falls pregnant and finds herself sucked into a domestic maelstrom that her artsy, freethinking self clearly can’t stomach. She tries to find various ways to relieve her repressed energy, whether riding the metro in circles, taking a series of fragmented self-portraits or adopting a shark online and tracking its movements via GPS. When the baby finally comes things only get worse, prompting Paz to take off on an impromptu voyage that evokes the film’s title, leaving Cesar completely blindsided and then some.

Not that you can blame the girl for leaving: Cesar mostly comes across as a mansplaining know-it-all who tries to dominate the clearly indomitable young artist, and Lellouche (Point Blank) plays the part convincingly enough. His character has tons of world experience, but he has no idea what kind of person he’s dealing with. By the time Cesar manages to figure Paz out it’s already, and sadly, too late. The rest of the movie follows his long, winding road to solve the mystery of his lover’s departure and get over her loss — a cinematic processus de deuil, or mourning process, that will take him to an obscure part of Oman and, eventually, to the bottom of the sea.  

Yet for a film that goes to, er, great depths to depict a shattered relationship and its unfortunate consequences, Plonger strangely remains on the surface of things. Cesar and Paz feel more like emotional archetypes than real people, and some of their exchanges are awfully loaded. (“I should be full and I’m empty.” “I need time... I need to disappear.”) Both actors are fine — with Valverde (Guernica) intensely channeling Paz’s longing to be alone, whether in the dark room or underwater — but they’re stuck in roles that, like the film's continued use of shallow-focus photography, are limited in scope.

This may have something to do with the original book, which won France’s prestigious Grand Prix du Roman but which, with its long monologue detailing a couple’s breaking apart from the inside, was not the easiest subject to adapt. Laurent definitely took a risk in doing so, and at best she gives us a taste of Cesar’s pain and Paz’s oppression, using evocative imagery, layered sound design and eye-catching locations to convey their internal struggles on screen. It works up to a certain extent, but all the pretty pictures don’t necessarily get at the heart of the matter. When the film ultimately jumps the shark (in all senses of the term) by the last act, we’re left pummeled with purpose yet longing to know more.

Production company: Move Movie
Cast: Gilles Lellouche, Maria Valverde, Ibrahim Ahmed, Marie Denarnaud
Director: Melanie Laurent
Screenwriters: Melanie Laurent, Christophe Deslandes, Julien Lambroschini, Charlotte Farcet, based on the novel by Christophe Ono-dit-Biot
Producer: Bruno Levy
Director of photography:
Production designer: Stanislas Reydellet
Costume designer: Maira Ramedhan Levi
Editor: Guerric Catala
Casting director:
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Sales: WTFilms

In French, Spanish, English
102 minutes