Parky At the Pictures (10/12/2021)
(Reviews of Drive My Car; Uncle Vanya; Lamb; and Margaux Hartmann)
So, here we are again! Normality is in jeopardy once more and cinema-going returns to being a risk for even the double-jabbed who've been boostered - let alone bleeped (look it up, you non-oldies).
Big screens remain in action. But, one suspects, the streaming platforms are about to come into their own again, as they continue to show new releases. In addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation will be staying open for business. Whatever choice you make, wear a mask and stay safe.
DRIVE MY CAR.
Eight features and a clutch of shorts have been inspired by the writings of Haruki Murakami. Kazuki Ohmori got the ball rolling with Hear the Song of the Wind (1982), since when Jun Ichikawa's Tony Takitani (2002), Robert Logevall's All God's Children Can Dance (2008). Daishi Matsunaga's Hanalei Bay and Lee Chang-dong's Burning (both 2018) have been afforded mixed critical receptions. Now, Ryusuke Hamaguchi's Drive My Car follows Anh Hung Tran's Norwegian Wood (2010) in adapting a Murakami story named after a Beatles song.
Actor-director Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is married to screenwriter Oto (Reika Kirishima). Their pillow talk often revolves around her describing scenes from a storyline she is working on, but their love-making has become somewhat prosaic since the death of their young daughter. Yusuke would have liked to have tried for more children, but Oto didn't want to and their chic Tokyo apartment has remained empty.
Following a performance of Waiting For Godot, Oto brings young actor Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) to her husband's dressing-room, as he is intrigued by his habit of staging multi-lingual productions. He is also taken by the fact that Yusuke learns his lines from cassettes that Oto has recorded while driving his treasured red Saab 900. However, when Yusuke drives home after a flight has been cancelled, he catches Oto and Takatsuki having sex on the sofa.
Discreetly, he checks into a hotel and flies to Vladivostok the next day. He doesn't let on that he knows Oto has cheated on him, but suspects that the plot details she whispers as they make love are inspired by her crush on the younger man. But Yusuke is adept at keeping his emotions under control. Even after he is diagnosed with glaucoma after bumping his car, he remains phlegmatic, although he gently teases Oto about the standard of her driving.
One morning, she asks if they can talk when he gets home. But he returns to find her dead from a cerebral haemorrhage and is forced to bow politely when Takatsuki attends the funeral. He's unable to forget about him, however, as, two years later, he auditions for a role in the production of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya that Yusuke is about to direct in Hiroshima. Because of a previous incident at the theatre, however, the insurance company insists upon Yusuke being driven by Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), a brusquely taciturn young woman who tries not to invade her new boss's space, as she heads towards the hotel an hour's drive away on an island.
Theatre director Yuzuhara (Satoko Abe) leaves the day-to-day co-ordination to Kon Yoon-su (Dae-Young Jin), who helps Yusuke audition Janice Chang (Sonia Yuan) from Taiwan and Lee Yoon-a (Yoo-rim Park), a Korean actress who uses sign language. They are respectively cast as Yelena and Sonya, while Takatsuki is surprisingly selected to play Vanya, even though he is too young for the role.
He and Joyce struggle to fall in with Yusuke's method of doing monotone table readings and Takatsuki invites him for a drink to talk things through. He admits to have been in love with Oto, but insists it was unrequited. Yusuke is aware that Takatsuki lost a role in a TV show because of a liaison with an underage girl and he assures him that he has never felt tempted to stray. Takatsuki confides that he is jealous of Yusuke for having been so close to Oto, but he blots his copybook by threatening a fan who took a phone snap at the bar and he's not certain that Yusuke has accepted his apology.
The rest of the cast find Yusuke's methods peculiar, but Yoon-a seems to be enjoying it. After an interview session, Yoon-su invites Yusuke to dinner and confesses that Yoon-a is his wife. He was worried she wouldn't get a fair audition if their relationship was known, but Yusuke warms to her, especially when she reveals that she tried for the play after losing the ability to dance after suffering a miscarriage. Yoon-su had insisted that Misaki joins them and she is embarrassed when Yusuke compliments her driving. In the car on the way back to the hotel, she confides that her mother had taught her to drive when she was in junior high and had learned to go smoothly over bumpy roads so as not to disturb her when she slept in the backseat.
The next day, Yusuke notices Janice and Takatsuki in the same car together and they are late. He had started to allow the others to add movements to their lines, but isn't impressed with the latecomers and orders them to resume the table reading. After the rehearsal, Takatsuki tries to apologise. But Yusuke knows his excuse of offering Janice a shoulder to cry on is untrue because they don't share a common language. He urges him to use his discretion and Takatsuki is embarrassed.
Rather than heading home, Yusuke asks Misaki for a guided tour of Hiroshima. She takes him to the recycling plant where she had first worked after her mother had been killed in a landslide that crushed their home. Yusuke admires Misaki's fortitude and resourcefulness, but she merely shrugs in her undemonstrative manner and takes him to the river, where they stop for a smoke. Misaki admits to liking the sound of Oto's voice on the tape and he informs her that she is dead.
The next day, Yusuke suggests rehearsing outdoors, as the weather is so nice and he wants Misaki to watch. Janice and Yoon-a do a scene together and the latter improvises a moment with a fallen leaf that enables each to gain a better understanding of their characters. Takatsuki recognises this and feels more of an outsider than usual. He invites Yusuke for a drink and he asks why he cast him as Vanya when he is so unsuited to the role. Yusuke admits that he no longer wishes to endure the emotional turmoil of such major roles and felt Takatsuki could learn a lot about his craft and himself by trying something out of his comfort zone.
As they wait for Misaki to pay the parking, Takatsuki chases a fan who had photographed him, but Yusuke doesn't notice. En route to the younger man's hotel, he asks about Oto and Yusuke reveals that they lost their daughter to pneumonia when she was four (making Misaki realise they would have been the same age). Their life was never the same again, but Oto found she could concoct stories while they made love and Yusuke is dismayed to hear that Takatsuki knows the tale she had told him about a schoolgirl who breaks into a classmates bedroom to hide love tokens that he might never find. Moreover, Takatsuki knows the ending, in which the girl masturbates on the boy's bed before killing a burglar who tries to rape her. She flees before anyone finds the body, but she notices that a CCTV camera has been positioned above the door and she makes her confession into its lens.
As they drive away, with Yusuke in the front seat, Misaki opines that Takatsuki was telling the truth (or his version of it), because she had grown up around liars. Yusuke offers her a cigarette and she hesitates because he doesn't smoke in the car. They open the sunroof and hold their hands in the night air, as they speed along the highway.
The next day, the rehearsals take place on stage at the theatre and Yusuke praises Takatsuki for the scene in which Vanya fires his pistol at Professor Serebryakov. But the good mood doesn't last long, as police officers arrive to arrest Takatsuki for killing the man who had tried to take his picture. He accepts his fate calmly and bows deeply to Yusuke in apology before being led away.
Outside the police station, Ms Yuzuhara tells Yusuke that Takatsuki had confessed to beating up the man who died. She asks Yusuke to save the play, but he doesn't feel he can. He asks Misaki to drive him to her home village so he can think. It's hundreds of miles away and they travel through the night. As they pass through a long tunnel, Yusuke admits that he had delayed getting home on the night Oto collapsed as he knew she wanted to tell him something that would change their lives irrevocably. He blames himself for her death and Misaki confesses to escaping from the house during the landslide and leaving her hated mother to her fate. Her face had been scarred during the incident and she had refused to let surgeons reduce the damage because she felt so guilty. Yusuke wishes he could reassure her that it wasn't her fault, but she is as guilty of killing her mother as he is of killing Oto.
They take the ferry to Hokkaido and drive along snowy roads to the ruins of the village. Misaki recognises some twisted metal as her old home and reveals that her mother used to assume the character of a kindly woman named Sachi to atone for the times when she was drunk and abusive. She misses her and wishes she had survived the landslide, but she also knew she had to escape her ordeal. Yusuke also becomes emotional, as he wishes he could see Oto again and berate her for cuckolding him and beg her forgiveness for not being what she wanted. However, Misaki assures him that Oto loved him and they hug, as Yusuke muses on the fact that everyone thinks about those who have gone before. But he believes that survivors have to deal with their pain because it helps shape them as people.
Misaki attends the opening night of the play and gazes through the darkness, as Yoon-a signs Sonya's speech about living as best we can and dying quietly so that God will pity us and grant us eternal rest. Not a pin drops, as she promises peace after suffering. But we cut to black as the applause begins to ripple and a coda shows us a masked Misaki shopping during the pandemic. She returns to the red Saab in the car park and pats the dog in the backseat. As she drives away, we are left to ponder her relationship with Yusuke, if she has one at all.
Performing has been a recurring theme in Ryusuke Hamaguchi's Happy Hour (2015), Asako I & II (2018) and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021). So it's no surprise that this selection from Murakami's Men Without Women centres on an actor-director trying to familiarise himself with the text of a play while putting on a front to prevent his late wife's ex-lover from realising that he knew all about their affair. Add into the mix a cast speaking in five different languages, a non-verbal actress signing her lines and an inscrutable driver who is impossible to read and it becomes difficult to detect who is putting on a show and who is being true to themselves.
Although the source story only runs for some 40 pages, the adaptation lasts almost three hours, as Hamaguchi and co-scenarist Takamasa Oe adopt a linear approach and take the odd diversion from Murakami's road map. The car in which so many key scenes are set turns from yellow to red so that Hidetoshi Shinomiya's camera can not only pick it out on the long and winding roads in and around Hiroshima, but also spot it against the whitened landscape of a wintry Hokkaido.
Yet, while Yusuke may be a passenger in his own vehicle, he very much sets the course for the slowly unfolding drama, as he tries to navigate with impaired vision through the emotional crisis that impinges upon his ability to act. He's not alone in bearing a psychological burden, however, as Takatsuki and Masaki have baggage of their own, while Oto clearly needed to get something off her chest on the night she died. But the only person we see making it through to the other side is Masaki, although she or may not still be involved with Yusuke, who, as Paul McCartney might have put it, has found a driver and that's a start.
Hidetoshi Nishijima excels as the 47 year-old who only feels at ease at the wheel, but he is superbly supported by Toko Miura's enigmatic surrogate daughter who only landed in Hiroshima because it's where her recently deceased mother's car chose to break down. Equally important is Reika Kirishima, who speaks to her grieving husband from beyond the grave through the words of Anton Chekhov, whose play always seems to have some wisdom to impart whenever Yusuke needs it most. Masaki Okada also does well in the tricky part of the actor of limited ability who has seemingly learned nothing from his brush with scandal and his fling with a woman who needs sex to forget and create.
It's slightly gimmicky that the opening credits only roll some 40 minutes into the action, but this interlude marks the transition between the first and second acts before the third transports us off the mainland into a cocooned silence that is beautifully captured by sound designer Izuta Kadoaki. Eiko Ishibashi's doleful score is also quietly evocative, while production designer Seo Hyeon-seon works wonders with the interiors of a Saab, a Tokyo apartment, a Hiroshima rehearsal room and a Hokkaido snowscape.
Editor Azusa Yamazaki also deserves credit for the pacing of scenes and a picture that never feels a long haul at 179 minutes. But it's Hamaguchi's poetic vision and compassionate humanism that make this compelling and leave hoping that a UK distributor picks up Kiyoshi Kurasawa's wartime thriller, Wife of a Spy - which Hamaguchi co-scripted with Tadashi Nohara and Kurosawa, who won the Best Director prize at the 2020 Venice Film Festival - before his Berlin Silver Bear-winning Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy reaches our screens in February next year.
Although the live streaming of hot ticket West End shows has made big screen theatre less of a novelty over recent years, filming stage plays remains tricky. Invariably, the director of the cine version runs the risk of treading on the toes of their theatrical counterpart, while the restricted space of the proscenium makes even the subtlest camera movement feel forced and intrusive.
By using six cameras to, however, Ross MacGibbon has done a fine job of recording Ian Rickson's take on Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, which was playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London before the pandemic caused it to close in March 2020. Redrafted by Conor McPherson from a new translation by Helen Rappaport, the script takes liberties with the original text. But, while purists might bridle at the newly minted speeches to camera, most viewers will be struck by the similarity between the frustrations and tensions being endured by the members of a provincial household in 1890s Russia and those living through lockdown in Covid Britain.
While Dr Mikhail Astrov (Richard Armitage) is grumbling to Marina (Anna Calder-Marshall) about feeling old and overworked in a country backwater, Vanya (Toby Jones) wakes from a nap to complain about how his daily routine has been disrupted by the arrival of brother-in-law Aleksandr Serebryakov (Roger Allam) and his new wife, Yelena (Rosalind Eleazar).
As Vanya warms to his theme, the couple return from a walk with daughter Sonya (Aimee Lou Wood), mother-in-law Maria (Dearbhla Molloy) and old retainer Telegin (Peter Wight) in tow. Maria chides her son for belittling Serebryakov's academic achievements and turns a deaf ear, as Vanya questions why a woman with Yelena's beauty, energy and intelligence would want to marry a pompous professor whose urban lifestyle is a constant drain on the estate's fragile finances.
Vanya is in love with Yelena, but she is as disinterested in his entreaties as Astrov is oblivious to Sonya's quiet devotion. Indeed, he is more concerned about the plight of the local forest and the impact that excessive logging will have on the eco system than he is about romance. However, he starts finding excuses over the ensuing weeks to visit the house, even though he finds Serebryakov's hypochondria increasingly irksome.
Vanya wishes he had proposed to Yelena when he first met her a decade earlier. Now, aged 47, he feels past his best and resents Serebryakov for stealing his beloved while leaving him to raise his daughter. Astrov is equally morose and Sonya berates them both for drinking too much and urges her uncle into throwing himself into work, as there is always plenty to do in keeping the estate going.
Sonya is evidently besotted with Astrov, but he is too cocooned in self-pity to notice, as he is exhausted with having to travel long distances in order to visit patients who are always too sick to help by the time he arrives. While he waits for Serebryakov to see him, Sonya asks Yelena if they can forget past differences and become friends. She confides her crush on the doctor, but Yelena is too preoccupied with her own boredom and unhappiness to pay attention. Relieved at being able to speak to her stepmother, Sonya goes to ask her father if Yelena can play the piano. But he refuses and gloom descends once more.
A few weeks pass and resentments start to fester. Vanya is outraged that Serebryakov has called a family meeting, but Sonya and Yelena are more interested by Astrov. He has come to the house to work on his maps and Yelena promises to sound him out about his feelings for Sonya. Predictably, he doesn't love her, but he does steal a kiss from Yelena that is witnessed by Vanya. Embarrassed, she implores Vanya to find a way of forcing the professor to leave so she can escape the petty issues that are beginning to engulf her.
His chance comes when Serebryakov announces that he intends selling the estate and investing the proceeds in stocks and shares so that he can live comfortably in the city. Outraged that he should be left homeless and have no say in the future of the property to which he has devoted his life, Vanya blames Serebryakov for his failure to have become a second Schopenhauer or Dostoevsky. He also accuses him of taking for granted the stipend generated by the hard work that he and Sonya put into managing the farm.
Maria dismisses her son's protests and insists that Serebryakov is a genius who should have everything he needs to work, including a proposed villa in Finland. Vanya storms out and Serebryakov charges after him after ignoring the entreaties of Sonya and Yelena. A shot is heard and Vanya aims at his brother-in-law for a second time. But he misses again and sinks into a chair in despair.
Later that evening, Astrov demands that Vanya returns a stolen vial of morphine and Sonya is disappointed that her uncle would contemplate suicide and leave her alone (as Yelena has told her of Astrov's brotherly feelings towards her). Serebryakov has decided to leave immediately and he makes his peace with Vanya, as Yelena informs Astrov that she has to get away because she has lost her head over him. She takes one of his pencils as a souvenir before leaving and Astrov also departs.
Sonya coaxes Vanya into going through some bills and a sense of normality returns, as Marina knits, Maria reads a pamphlet and Telegin strums his guitar. Unable to concentrate, Vanya bemoans his lot. But Sonya reminds him that humans suffer so that God can take pity on them and ensure that they are granted eternal rest. Not sure whether her words will provide comfort during the cold winter to come, Vanya shrugs and gets on with his paperwork.
Reactions to this reinterpretation are likely to turn on the dialogue, which is accessibly modern in places and even slips in a furiously well-judged `F word'. However, the interpolated monologues to camera may also prove an irritant, especially as Chekhov has already made the points that McPherson and Rickson choose to emphasise and a good deal more subtly. The real dare, however, would have been to set the action in Parnellian Ireland and gaelicise the character names (so the F-bomb could be replaced with a milder feckspletive).
Yet, one can over look the odd slangism and forced wisecrack because the standard of the playing is so uniformly high. Naturally, Toby Jones takes centre stage with a sardonically jittery display in the title role, although he seems more comfortable complaining about the professor than he does mooning over his wife. Rosalind Eleazar's coquettish tilt at the doctor also lacks the conviction of Aimee Lou Wood's touching devotion to a man who barely notices her (although this, of course, may be down to the fact that Yelena is only flirting out of boredom). Wood's fleeting dismay when her beloved kisses on the forehead rather than the lips is quietly devastating.
She also handles Sonya's closing speech with a delicacy that is deftly complemented by the gentle guitar playing of Peter Wight, who makes an empathetic Waffles. However, the intimacy of the scene (and, indeed, the entire play) depends on the shabby rustic cosiness of Rae Smith's autumnal set, which is exquisitely lit throughout by Bruno Poet.
It's always good to see the name of Béla Tarr amongst a film's credits and the Hungarian maestro is listed as an executive producer on Valdimir Jóhannsson's first feature, Lamb. However, being a graduate of Tarr's Film Factory in Sarajevo is actually less significant to the success of this weird and wonderful picture than the fact that the Icelandic debutant's grandparents were sheep farmers.
One freezing night near Christmas, all is not right on an Icelandic hillside. The horses can't settle and the penned sheep seem agitated. As she prepares supper with her partner, Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Gudnason), Maria (Rapace) looks out of the window into the snowy darkness. But the sun shines on a new day and the couple get on with their chores around the farm. They don't say much, but seem content as Ingvar mentions over lunch that advances have been made in the theory of time travel. He isn't bothered about jaunting into the future. but Maria suggests they could always retreat into the past.
As lambing starts, they muck in together. But one newborn causes them to exchange hurried glances and Maria hurries it inside to clean it up and keep it warm. She feeds it from a bottle, while it's wrapped in a blanket inside a tin bath. Both seem awed by the creature and Ingvar fetches an old cot from the barn. While out on his tractor, however, he is overcome by memories of the child the couple had lost a year or so before.
When the lamb's mother starts pining and coming up to the house to bleat beneath a window. Maria tries to shoo her away. But the ewe persists and slips in through the door while Ingvar is preoccupied and the pair have to search the windswept hills before finding Ada and her birth mother in the mist. We catch a glimpse of the human body, as Maria wraps it in Ingvar's coat and turns to bellow at the ewe for following them. A hand is clearly seen as Ada settles down to sleep. Relieved to have found her, Maria and Ingvar sit beside the cot without need for recrimination or apology.
Time passes and the animals are grazing in spring warmth. However, Ada's mother continues to hang around the house hoping to see her baby and Maria decides to act. While Ingvar sleeps, she takes a gun and shoots the ewe and drags its carcass by the horn so she can bury it in a deep pit.
Meanwhile, out on a remote road, Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) is thrown out of a car by his companions and he makes his way towards the farm. As it's late, he sleeps in the barn. Ingvar finds his brother the next morning and invites him in for breakfast. Maria shows him to the table and introduces him to Ada, who is dressed in a thick yellow pullover.
Pétur does little to hide his amazement, as the sheep girl sits down opposite him. Later, while holding a ladder to Ingvar to paint a window ledge, Pétur slips away to watch Ada splashing her mother in the bath and he sneers when Ingvar claims this is what happiness looks like. Unconvinced, he waits until Marie and Ingvar are sleeping and takes Ada into the wilds with the intention of shooting her. However, the trusting expression on her face prevents him from pulling the trigger and Maria wakes to find the pair sleeping together in an armchair.
Maria is touched by how devoted Pétur is towards his `niece' and watches them go off on a fishing expedition. Ingvar lures her into bed while they are away and she allows herself to feel sensations she has denied herself since the death of her daughter. Pétur returns in a bad mood because the tractor broke down, so Maria tries to cheer him up with a VHS of his pop video from many moons ago. Ada dances with them, as Ingvar gets tipsy and has to have a lie down.
Having wandered outside to see something that disturbs her, Ada snuggles beside him and gazes at an old photograph on the wall of shepherds and their flock. Downstairs, Pétur makes a clumsy pass at Maria and she locks him in storeroom to sleep it off. The next morning, she drives him to the bus stop and he accepts that their fling is long in the past and that her future lies with Ingvar and Ada.
They have not noticed that the sheepdog has been slaughtered and stroll off together to fix the tractor. As she picks flowers, Ada senses danger is near and Ingvar turns to see a large ovine biped brandishing a rifle. It shoots him twice before leading Ada away by the hand. By the time Maria finds him, Ingvar is barely alive and she clings to him promising that everything will be okay. Standing, she closes her eyes and takes a deep breath as she wonders how to go on after her devastating loss.
Just as it's never explained how human Ada lost her life, it's far from clear as the credits roll whether Maria has been punished for killing Ada's mother or whether Nature (in a monstrously mutant form) has fought back against arrogant humanity. But Valdimir Jóhannsson's debut certainly leaves viewers with a sense of despondency to go with the many WTF questions that this atmospheric, affecting and audacious feature raises.
There's a fairytale feel to the way in which Maria and Ingvar unquestioningly accept Ada as a gift, as woodcutters of yore have welcomed fable foundlings. But Jóhannsson and his novelist/poet co-scribe, Sjón, seem disinterested in placing their tale (with its droll nativity undertones) in any sort of logical context and, in this regard, the picture chimes in with such Hollywood kidpix as Rob Minkoff's adaptation of E.B. White's Stuart Little (1999). Yet, the sheep-and-sibling aspect of the story evokes compatriot Grímur Hákonarson's Rams (2015), while the mythical creature element recalls Ali Abbasi's Swedish saga, Border (2018).
There's nothing derivative about the action, however, as Noomi Rapace (who grew up in Iceland) and Hilmir Snær Gudnason reveal much while saying little as the grieving couple who barely see a soul on their remote hill farm. Never for a second do they consider disposing of the lamb child and Jóhannsson deftly trades on their unquestioning devotion to keep the audience onside, as he withholds the truth about Ada's appearance from her fleecy neck downwards until around 40 minutes into the three-chaptered scenario.
It's not all cutesome cuddles, however, as both Maria and Pétur pick up a rifle (which presumably is the weapon that's used against Ingvar, the one person who doesn't handle it in anger). Indeed, Maria pays the ultimate price for assuming that her maternal instinct takes precedence over that of a `dumb' animal. Yet she actually spends less time with Ada than Ingvar and Pétur, who are always taking her on expeditions or napping with her
Of course, the blend of puppetry, live performance and special effects to make Ada plausible is key to the film's narrative, emotional and absurdist success. But she is so beautifully achieved that her gruesome father feels disappointingly bogus by comparison, after his sinister presence had been so unsettlingly suggested by sound designers Ingvar Lunderg and Björn Viktorsson.
Much of the beast's impact is also due to the reaction of the sheepdog and Panda thoroughly merited his Grand Prix in this year's Palm Dog contest at Cannes. Cinematographer Eli Arenson also works wonders with the changing seasons passing over the rugged hillside and ensures that the more fantastical aspects are rooted in an authentically austere rural realism that is both moodily and movingly complemented by Thórarinn Gudnason's ambient score. It's just a shame that the denouement and the CGI used to realise it don't quite come off.
Numerous films have focussed on the problems of starting again in middle-age, but the debuting Ludovic Bergery explores the theme from a female perspective with tact, wit and unsettling honesty in Margaux Hartmann. Showing as part of the French Film Festival that was covered in more detail last week, this can be viewed online as part of the @Home selection.
Returning from Germany six months after the death of her older husband, Margaux Hartmann (Emmanuelle Béart) moves into a remote house near her half-sister in Versailles. She enrols at the nearby university to complete the German language course she had abandoned to get married. Embarrassed at arriving late for a lecture and realising how much older she is than her fellow students, Margaux is relieved when she hooks up with a boisterous group of friends that includes Karl (Nelson Delapalme), Lise (Marie Zabukovec), Harold (Sandor Funtek), Wilfried (Arthur Verret) and Aurélien (Vincent Dedienne).
The latter takes a shine to her and offers her a lift to a party being thrown by some graduates. However, Aurélien leaves Margaux to find her own way to the club after asking her not to tell anyone else that he has slipped off with a cute guy he has noticed across the street. Feeling her age again, Margaux finds herself smoking outside with German tutor Til Rosenthiel (Tibo Vandenborre), who buys her a drink and squires her on to the dance floor before she makes a reluctant exit with the late-arriving Aurélien.
He pries into Margaux's past and she confesses to not having had a lot of sex in recent years. She's convinced her partying days are behind her, but Aurélien urges her to follow her instincts and remember that she's still an attractive woman. Til certainly thinks she is and they go for a drink after Margaux buys him a CD. They go back to his hotel room, as he splits his week between Paris and Cologne. But Margaux gets bashful as he undresses her and he asks her to leave as he doesn't want a relationship with a silly girl.
Nettled, Margaux drops out of Til's class and signs up for a medieval dialect group. She tries to focus on her studies, but Aurélien refuses to let her hide away. She joins the gang when they sneak into an indoor swimming pool and watches enviously as they have guilt-free sex in the sauna. Consequently, she plucks up the courage to register with a dating site and arranges a café rendezvous with Eric (Nicolas Moreau). He's a decent, but dull accountant and Margaux has to let him down gently when he asks if they can meet again.
Aurélien drives her to a second date with Gaston (Yannick Choirat), who has made it clear he wants an uncomplicated sexual relationship. Margaux is nervous when she enters his apartment, but allows herself to be swept into bed. She surprises herself by enjoying the encounter and requests another meeting, which culminates in Margaux initiating some small talk that leads, in turn, to Gaston confiding he plays trombone in the orchestra at the Opera.
Having coaxed him into giving her his number, Margaux calls to arrange another assignation. But he doesn't return her call and she lingers outside the Opera in the hope of seeing him. Deciding to take a chance, she shows up at his apartment unannounced and is appalled to discover that he is married with children.
Finding herself locked out, Margaux takes a taxi into Paris to find Aurélien, who has a job at the Hotel Trianon. He's not on duty, however, and she can't afford a room for the night. Instead, she orders a lavish meal and attracts the attention of three Russians, who are in town for a conference. They invite her to their table. where she gets so tipsy that she allows herself to be bundled into their car. On arriving at an isolated property after a lengthy drive, Margaux sobers up and clambers out of a bathroom window to escape an unhealthy situation. Hearing the sound of the sea, she wanders on to the beach and wades into the freezing water.
Aurélien comes to fetch her next morning and she confesses that she doesn't know what to do next. He reveals that he has no desire to get a proper job and will probably stay on to write a thesis. But Margaux's student days are at an end and the film concludes with her taking a train to Cologne, where she just happens to bump into Til, who seems pleased to see her.
It's often said that there aren't enough roles for actresses of a certain age, yet Emmanuelle Béart gives one of the best performances of her career in this variation on the sex and the single girl theme. More might have been made of the contrasts between Margaux and the female members of her clique, as they are the age that she was when she married and the rules of engagement have changed considerably in the intervening three decades. However, one doubts that they would behave in as gauche a manner as Margaux does in trying to prove to herself that she still has sex appeal.
The liaison with Til is plausible enough, as are the initial meetings with Gaston. Indeed, the sequence in which Margaux sings along with the pop song he plays for her is touchingly sweet. But the spiralling descent into which she tumbles after discovering his guilty secret feels like it belongs in another film and Bergery compounds his error by tacking on an even more specious denouement.
This is a shame, as the theme of trying to reclaim lost youth is a good one. especially as it's so neatly bound into the notion of how women see themselves and what they think men expect of them. A little more background information about Margaux's marriage might have given the audience a greater insight into her situation, but Béart conveys her propriety and vulnerability while keeping her something of an enigma.
Bergery flirts with making connections between the millennial mindset and classic German literature (courtesy of Goethe and Kleist). But, with Martin Roux's nocturnal shots of Paris making the City of Light seem a little seedy, this episodic, involving drama best conveys the loneliness of modern urban living in an age when instant communication has made strangers of us all.