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Puritaine, La
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by Jay Seaver

"This father-daughter confrontation is built up like there's some reason."
3 stars

That theater people are crazy and self-important is a sweeping generalization, but one that apparently contains enough truth that people can watch a film like "La Puritaine" and say "you know, as insane as that is, I bet it might actually happen. Friggin' weirdos." It's the sort of movie that makes sense only if you presume a certain amount of individual and institutional insanity.

Renowned theater director Pierre (Michel Piccoli) has just received a letter saying that his daughter Manon (Sandrine Bonnaire) is coming home and will meet him at the theater the next day. His next move, therefor, is obviously to call in all the actresses in his troupe, assign some representation of his daughter to each of them ("you will be Manon's eyes... you will be her voice... you will be her hand...") so that he can figure out how to speak with her upon her return. In the meantime, Manon arrives at the theater, lets herself in the back way, and observes this whole exercise, occasionally talking to one of the actresses or her father's assistant Ariane (Sabine Azéma) before finally speaking to her father.

Co-writer/director Jacques Doillon loves actors; based upon the sample shown at the Brattle during this series, his films are much more about putting his cast in a situation where they can inhabit their characters, with the actual storytelling accomplished with a jolt of melodrama toward the end. What goes on here really doesn't make a lick of sense, but it does give Mr. Piccoli and Ms. Bonnaire a chance to shine, individually if not necessarily as a pair. It's the kind of movie that feels improvised both because of the type of material - Pierre and his troupe come off like a professor and his students doing exercises - and the way in which it meanders, not really feeling like it's leading to anything.

And the actors do acquit themselves well. The six young actresses in the troupe are relatively anonymous, blurring into a sort of mass after the movie is over, but have their distinctive personalities during the viewing. The main issue I had with them is that they all do seem just a little too happy to give up their night off in order to help their boss deal with his personal problems in a manner whose usefulness seems dubious (although flashbacks indicate Manon was part of the ensemble, and so was their friend). Fortunately, Piccoli makes Pierre the sort of genial tyrant a young actress will forgive. He smiles, instructs without being condescending and appreciates their beauty without coming off as a dirty old man. He exudes enough personal magnetism and expertise that people will forgive him for going a little too far. There's just enough sense of arrogance and entitlement underneath that it doesn't seem like much of a shift at all when he treats his daughter unfairly; that he never seems to consider that he might be responsible for the rift between them is perfectly natural.

Ms. Bonnaire is a little more cryptic as Manon; she seems nice enough, and we get a strong sense of her nervousness at seeing her father for the first time in a year. The audience's sympathy tends to rest with her, but we don't really feel that much affection for the character: She is unforgiving, and in a way almost as melodramatic as her father. There's a slight coldness to her, and even in the flashbacks, she kind of holds us at arm's length.

The supporting characters are fine, too - Ms. Azéma functions as the glue holding the movie together. She plays Ariane as crisply professional, even if there is an implication of a more personal connection with Pierre. She's smart enough to balance her loyalties to father and daughter, acting as a neutral party each can talk to. Laurent Malet does fine as the young actor Manon is involved with during the flashbacks.

The flashbacks are fairly well handled; it's initially a little bit tricky because they involve the same people and locations as the present-day scenes, and Doillon doesn't do much to make them visually distinct or provide some cue. It sorts itself out in reasonably short order, even if does take a bit to recognize that he's switched timeframes. The trouble's more basic, in that we really don't know enough about Pierre and Manon to be interested in their confrontation. The whole situation seems artificial, although Pierre's the kind of guy who would set up that sort of artificial situation, and it often seems like he's chosen the least interesting way possible to give us a sense of our characters before making things happen to them. I'm also curious that he names the film "La Puritaine", which is something Pierre hurls at Manon as a criticism. It not only seems like an odd epithet for him to use in the first place, but using it as the film's title seems to indicate his sympathies lie with the father, even as he becomes more overtly nasty.

So by the end, I found myself wondering what the point of the exercise was, aside from some quality acting. Which isn't a bad goal in and of itself, but it makes for a drawn-out movie that may leave the audience fidgeting for much of the runtime.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=13802&reviewer=371
originally posted: 02/14/06 11:16:20
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  02-Oct-1986

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