'Sophie's Misfortunes' ('Les Malheurs de Sophie'): Film Review

Courtesy of Unifrance
Light and fun but with increasingly dark undercurrents.

French auteur Christophe Honoré ('Love Songs,' 'Inside Paris') puts his own spin on the popular children's classic from the Countess of Segur.

The trilogy of novels written by the Countess of Segur, about the intrepid little French girl Sophie, whose often-destructive curiosity was a constant headache for her chateau-dwelling mother, was published in the second half of the 19th century and has often been adapted since (including for TV, cinema, the stage and even as a comic book and animated series). The latest incarnation of this clearly beloved property is a (mostly) live-action feature called Sophie’s Misfortunes (Les Malheurs de Sophie), directed by French auteur Christophe Honoré (Inside ParisMan at Bath, Love Songs), also a prolific children’s author in his own right.

Gorgeously shot and with a sunny and infectious insouciance at its heart, even if some of the later scenes in this episodic tale — adapted from the first two novels — are rather dark for a children’s film, this will do solid numbers at home, where it will be released April 20. Abroad, this should also pique the interest of distributors who aim for younger audiences, especially in territories where dubbing is the norm.

Honoré has his work cut out for him, since so many French viewers are familiar with at least one previous incarnation of the story. His approach is to be slyly modern and reassuringly old-fashioned at the same time. The music, composed by Honoré’s regular composer Alex Beaupain, for example, goes back and forth between a classical orchestral score and a more modern and pared-back sound, while the visuals combine an old-school, academy-style ratio that’s almost square with handheld camerawork that keeps things fresh (and probably made it easier to shoot the children, all of them non-professional actors). The finely detailed yet practical costumes, from veteran Belgian costumière and regular Ozon and Honoré collaborator Pascaline Chavanne, most clearly betray the fact the director has moved the story back several decades, from the 1860s and 1870s to the Napoleonic era (when the Countess of Segur would have been a child).

To further underline the film’s jocular tone and grab the audience’s attention, Sophie’s Misfortunes immediately breaks the fourth wall, with a servant (Jean-Charles Clichet) telling the audience that he’s sure that before the day is over, a new doll given to 5-year-old Sophie (winning newcomer Caroline Grant) by her always-absent father (whose face never appears onscreen) will have lost its head. Though he didn't guess the correct body part that will be separated from the doll and it takes minutes rather than hours, the little rascal does like to take things apart — and not only dolls but also live goldfish, for example.

That said, Sophie’s mostly a solar and radiant presence and gets up to mischief mainly because she’s curious about how things work more than any desire to simply to simply steal or destroy things. On a more Freudian level, there’s the possibility that, for example, maiming a doll that was given to her by her father suggests something about how Sophie feels about his constant absence from the household, though Honoré leaves that up to audiences to decide, with the film itself more an event-driven narrative than a psychological drama, so children affected by 21st century attention-span troubles will always have something to see.

Sophie has a playmate in her little cousin, Paul (Tristan Farge), who lives with Sophie and her mother, Madame de Rean (Golshifteh Farahani), in a gorgeous chateau surrounded by castle gardens. A neighbor, the young Madame de Fleurville (Anais Demoustier), also has several kids, so there are more than enough playmates around with whom she can catch a squirrel — integrated in animated form, another jocular touch — or for whom she can prepare a pot of tea filled with, well, definitely not tea.

These frequently sun-dappled summertime scenes, infused with female energy and wit, have a playful quality that contrasts with the darker second part of the film, which is set in the dreary winter months and after the family’s disastrous emigration attempt to the U.S. (shown in a beautiful visual FX coup-de-theatre in which a maritime painting comes to threatening life in a scene that might upset younger viewers). Back in France, Sophie has become an orphan in the care of her imperious stepmother, Madame Fichini (Muriel Robin, deliciously evil but also more of a caricature than everyone else). The pic’s gentle comedy here becomes more class- and etiquette-related — a servant (David Prat) is told off for being too handsome and thus untrustworthy and not loyal — which will work better for adults than for kids, though the return of some cute animated critters will subsequently delight the latter.

If it’s never entirely clear whether Honoré wanted to make a good-looking and well-acted cinematic divertissement or whether there’s an actual moral to the story, that shouldn’t keep audiences of all ages from enjoying it.  

Production companies: Les Films Pelleas, Gaumont, France 3 Cinema
Cast: Caroline Grant, Golshifteh Farahani, Muriel Robin, Anais Demoustier, Celeste Carrale, Justine Morin, Michel Fau, David Prat
Director: Christophe Honoré
Screenplay: Christophe Honoré, Gilles Taurand, based on the novels
Les malheurs de Sophie and Les petites filles modeles by the Countess of Segur
Producers: Philippe Martin, David Thion
Director of photography: Andre Chemetoff
Production designer: Florian Sanson
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne
Editor: Chantal Hymans
Music: Alex Beaupain
Animation supervisor: Benjamin Renner
Casting: Elsa Pharaon
Sales: Gaumont

Not rated, 106 minutes