Sunday, March 23, 2008

Boston Underground Film Festival 2008: La Belle Bête

No time for more, camping at the Brattle again today.

La Belle Bête (The Beautiful Beast)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 March 2008 at the Brattle Theater (BUFF X)

There are a number of ways for a family to be too close, and the cast of characters of La Belle Bête manages to hit just about every one of them. That makes for some good melodrama, and a movie that would be plenty creepy even without the horse-headed guy.

We meet this family some time after the father has died. Louise (Carole Laure) and her teenage children have retreated to their country estate. Louise dotes upon Patrice (Marc-André Grondin), a handsome young man who is the spitting image of his father, but speaks to daughter Isabelle-Marie (Caroline Dhaveras) with disdain. Still, she leaves Isabelle-Marie in charge when she is called away for a funeral, since Patrice is far too dim to take care of himself. That's when Isabelle-Marie's own hostilities get exposed, and then Louise returns with a new boyfriend. Patrice is jealous, especially since Isabelle-Marie also soon finds a boyfriend of her own. As much as their family relations had not been healthy before, they were in a sort of equilibrium, which has now been thrown out of whack.

Who is the beautiful beast of the title? Isabelle-Marie calls Patrice a dumb animal on more than one occasion, and it at times seems like an apt description. There's something a bit subhuman about him - a tutor throws up his hands at trying to teach him anything, and the scenes where Louise leaves the kids alone show him as easily led and quickly reduced to primal motives. Louise is the more conventional movie version of the concept, still retaining much of her beauty while emotionally abusing her daughter and seducing her son. And then there's Isabelle-Marie, whose attractiveness and capacity for cruelty come to the surface as the film goes on.

Caroline Dhavernas is fantastic, though she's certainly not alone in giving a fine performance. Still, Isabelle-Marie is the the character that doesn't have the straightforward hook. Initially, we might think that she'll be sympathetic or "normal", but she turns out to be, perhaps, the only member of the family that is consciously monstrous. Dhavernas is so good, though, that a part of the audience will understand and still be in her corner - as much as we're repelled by her viciousness, we might find ourselves trying to justify it. Maybe we don't love or even like her by the end, but we're fascinated by her.

That's not to discount the rest of the cast, since they are also well worth watching. Carole Laure makes Louise a woman wrapped up in her own beauty, reliant on men's attraction and potentially unable to cope when something starts to eat away at it. She's petite and often pitted against Isabelle-Marie, but as needy as Louise is, she clearly dominates the house; her tears seem to have a purpose. Marc-André Grondin makes Patrice both innocent and frightening; he is childlike and uncontrolled, like he would be feral save for his connection to his horse and his family.

Karim Hussain directed and shot the film, as well as working with original novelist Marie-Claire Blais on the screenplay. Blais wrote the novel nearly fifty years ago at the age of seventeen, and Hussain preserves that point of view, even as he does give moments to Louise and Patrice. He does a fine job of showing how Louise and her children live in their own world; their stone house and behavior are out of a period piece, but there are more modern things occasionally glimpsed as the characters begin to interact more with the outside world. I'm also very fond of how they played the ending; it's very ambiguous about what could happen next. Have we seen someone break free of a sick situation by horrible means, or are we seeing a cycle perpetuated?

The horse-headed guy? Actually makes a little sense when the characters see him, although he often appears to be mere strangeness for strangeness's sake. The movie could have done without it, frankly, but even with that it's still a fine story of a sick family.

Also at HBS.

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