It is usually a bad sign when a bunch of people applaud as a production company’s logo flashes in the opening credits of a film. And for me, when I see that a French film is a France Télévisions production — in this case, France 3 — I sense that what I am about to watch will resemble a typical Sunday night TV movie. And Mal de Pierres (literally, “pain of rocks,” retitled as From the Land of the Moon for English territories) is no exception.
I am not going to be tender here. Despite the rather disappointing WTF-dom that was Ma Loute, I nevertheless attended this screening (8:30am) with an open mind. I left two hours later with an impulsive note to myself to abandon French film screenings for the rest of the festival. No, I won’t do that because there are some great productions, but they are sadly not in the Selection, and this inexplicably is. No doubt it’s due to star power. Nicole Garcia is a very respected and talented actress and director (starring in Alain Resnais‘ Cannes prize-winner Mon Oncle Amerique), and this is it her first film as director competing in Cannes. Plus, Marion Cotillard is always a good name to have on the Croisette. C’est la vie.
Cotillard plays Gabrielle, a small town girl in the 1950s South of France who dreams of escaping her provincial life. She wants love with passion. She herself is passionate to the point of folly. A real drama queen who feels misunderstood. So whenever she gets that sharp pain in her side, they never know whether she’s acting or vying for the attention she is so desperate for. Especially from a certain male. After causing a scene when her married tutor rejects her advances — her flame declared in the form of an erotic letter — her parents decide to marry her off to a Spanish laborer, José (Alex Brendenmühl), who has a crush on her. If she doesn’t comply, her mother threatens to place her in a mental institution. More than wanting her daughter to have a secure future, her mother just wants her embarrassing daughter to leave and let her be someone else’s problem.
After José makes an honest woman of her, they settle in the seaside town of La Ciotat where he opens his own construction company, funded by his in-laws. (So yeah, they basically buy him off, as Gabrielle says.) But José turns out to be a good husband, yet despite his devotion to her, she vows she will never love him nor allow him to consummate their marriage. He even pays for her long-term sojourn in an expensive Swiss thermal spa when a doctor finds the source of her chronic pains to originate from kidney stones.
Reluctant at first to stay in this strange place, she gets accustomed to it when she meets the dashing André Sauvage (Louis Garrel), a severely injured army vet who fought the Indochinese War. She falls hard for him and they talk of running away together.
Inspired by the novel by Milena Agus, Nicole Garcia claims it is an echo of her own life. It is the very nature of the female condition of that has in fact made a loose adaptation, co-written with Jacques Fieschi. While the story is endearing with its post-War atmosphere, it is full of clichés, some risible, one lengthy frame at a time. Garcia claims Gabrielle is a typical submissive wife in the old-fashioned world of the Fifties, withholding her passionate nature, but Cotillard’s portrayal comes off as neurotic and even depressive, which is probably what Gabrielle suffered from for the 20 or so years we get acquainted with her, up until that fateful day of her son Marc’s (Victor Quilichini) piano audition which opens the film. (Consummating her marriage was one of the vows she broke.)
The only characters that we form an attachment to are André and José, a discreet man with lots of patience and love. And surviving this was a real labor of love for the benefit of the festival itself.
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