Under the Figtree (Sous le Figuier): Film Review

Death is sanitized in this saccharin view of elderly woman putting youngsters to rights.

A 97-year-old actress, Gisele Casadesus, distills saloon-bar wisdom in Belgian helmer's feel-good movie about the business of dying.

Belgian director Anne-Marie Etienne's Under the Figtree is about an elderly woman facing the imminence of death from an incurable disease. Not, on the face of it, a movie you'd want to take your granny to. But then again, why not, since this is death with all the sting taken out of it -- reassuring, life-affirming, heart-warmingly philosophical. That the philosophy is of the saloon-bar variety should not be too much of a deterrent to popular audiences in these troubled times, and with the proper packaging, Figtree could at a stretch be pitched as family viewing.

Selma (Gisele Casadesus), 95-years-young and bright as a button, leads a comfortable existence, augmenting her pension with occasional tarot-reading and fortune-telling, though doctors have given her only a few weeks left to live. Her close friend Nathalie (Anne Consigny), half her age, suggests that they should spend the time left to her at a summer retreat out in the country. Nathalie brings along her best friend Christophe (Jonathan Zaccai) and his three children, while Selma invites a young client, Joelle (Marie Kremer), who also has a small child in tow.

The first half-hour of the film is an extended set-up for what follows. The younger characters, each in their own way, are weighed down by the discontents of modern civilization -- Nathalie as head chef in a restaurant whose proprietor wants to convert her to the latest fad in nouvelle cuisine, Christophe as an unemployed house-husband, Joelle as a harassed (borderline hysterical) reluctant mother. Each of them is emotionally unfulfilled, by separation, divorce or a cheating partner. During their summer idyll, while the children splash around in the swimming pool or as they sit at the dinner table watching the sun decline, Selma distills the ageless wisdom that enables them to see their lives in perspective while she herself awaits the inevitable.

That, at least, is the premise of this curate's egg of a movie. Only occasionally does Etienne succeed in avoiding the saccharin trap inherent in any story that has a sweet little old lady at its center. Selma says she is determined to go on smiling until the end, and smile she does, relentlessly. Her pearls of wisdom rarely rise above the cracker-barrel level of "You're afraid of life" -- "No, I'm afraid of suffering" -- "Same thing." More objectionably, Selma's death is sanitized and rendered as untraumatic as catching a train. Supposedly ravaged by a disease that is never specified, she remains impeccably groomed, every hair in place even as she lies in her hospital bed.

Against that, Casadesus's performance at the age of 97 (she made her first on-screen appearance in 1934) is remarkable, and if Etienne's intention was to make a feel-good movie about the business of dying, there at least her energy and conviction carry her though.           

Release date: March 20, 2013

Production companies: Mact Productions, Tarantula

Cast: Gisele Casadesus, Anne Consigny, Jonathan Zaccai, Marie Kremer

Director: Anne-Marie Etienne

Writer: Anne-Marie Etienne

Photography: Philippe Guilbert

Producers: Martine de Clermont-Tonnerre, Donato Rotunno, Marie-Noelle Hauville

Production Design: Francois Dickes

Editor: Sabine Emiliana

Music: Jeannot Sanavia

No MPAA rating

Running time: 92 minutes