Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Pretty Parisian Pictures by way of Belgium

Villa des Roses
Ardustry Home Entertainment // 115 Minutes // Rated R

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“It was the beginning of the end of innocence.” ~ From the lobby poster.

Opening Shot
Exquisite cinematography and French actress Julie Delpy are highlights of this peculiar, melancholy film set in France in the weeks before World War I engulfed Europe. Winner of the best feature film at the 2002 Hollywood Film Festival, for whatever that’s worth.

A Bit of Plot…
Paris, 1913. On the eve of war, lovely young widow Louise Créteur (Julie Delpy, Killing Zoe) arrives at the Villa des Roses to work as a chambermaid. She soon discovers the grand-sounding villa is actually a rundown mansion converted into a hotel by an eccentric and rather nasty British couple. They rent rooms to a veritable asylum of lunatics, starving artists, con artists, and lost souls. Presiding over this menagerie of oddballs is the chatty cook Ella (Shirley Henderson, Bridget Jones’s Diary), who eavesdrops on everyone in the house via an elaborate system of pipes.

Louise shrugs off the odd residents of the villa to concentrate on her work. One of the tenants, German artist Richard Grünewald (Shaun Dingwall, Outlanders), bets with the cook that he can seduce Louise like so many girls before her. Instead, he falls into an affair with this French woman on the cusp of World War. As their respective countries prepare for war against each other, their passion spirals out of control.

Context and Significance
Based on a novel by Willem Eisschot, Villa des Roses covers familiar turf with the cliché that war alters lives forever. Without a boarding house full of lunatics to provide some interest, the main story of two lovers from opposing countries would be merely banal.

Imagery is the film’s strong suit. Belgian director Frank Van Passel and cinematographer Jan Vancaillie succeeded brilliantly in their stated goal to design the film as a slideshow of France during the early 20th-century. Credit must also be given to the lab technicians whose skill with chemistry and computers brought many of these amazing images to vivid life. So it’s a disappointment, then, that Van Passel filled the frame with beautiful images, only to build the film around stereotypical doomed lovers who speak in cinematic platitudes — they talk like movie characters, in other words, spouting unrealistic dialogue.

One of the protagonists is a louse and many of the supporting characters are intensely unlikable, so it is difficult to muster much sympathy when tragedy strikes these people. We know there will be sorrow, as the film opens with scenes of battle, then shifts into flashback. If that’s not enough, the inclusion of the wistful, bittersweet Intermezzo from the Mascagni opera Cavalleria Rusticana is a clear signal that unhappiness awaits.

Delpy is a marvelous actress whose script choices are often inscrutable (An American Werewolf in Paris springs to mind). Here, she is so doggedly sedate that I began wondering if her German lover might do well to bring a defibrillator to bed. Delpy’s character is obviously a woman stricken by one tragic circumstance after another, beginning with her husband’s death, but there is a certain point where grief stops being an interesting plot device for the audience. Eventually, it becomes tedious. Villa des Roses crosses that line.

The R rating is grossly misleading. In the absence of any other objectionable content, one fully-clothed romp in the bed is worthy, at best, of a PG-13. The arbitrary nature of the MPAA ratings system — especially as it seems to apply to independent films — remains a mystery.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. The digital transfer captures the soft images and muted colors of this period picture. A choice of Dolby stereo or 5.1 surround is nice, but the rear channels are mostly idle throughout the film in surround mode. Toggling between the audio options, the stereo track sounded more pleasing to these ears.

Ardustry could have done better than provide a mere eight chapter stops for a movie that runs nearly two hours. Optional subtitles would have also been helpful, as Delpy’s character speaks frequently in hushed French. A key scene where she prays aloud in church will be lost on viewers who do not speak Delpy’s native tongue. Still, most of the film is presented in English, which is ironic since it failed to secure a North American distribution deal and was not screened in the United States outside of festivals.

Extras are limited to five trailers of Ardustry films, including this one.

The Contrarian View
I suspect this would make a fine date movie, as there are ample opportunities for consoling and comforting, post-credits. There’s also a substantial romance quotient before the plot finally unravels into melodramatic idiocy as characters react in unbelievable ways. If all else fails, there’s always the gorgeous scenery to indulge the eyes.

Slow moving and eccentric, the film may appeal to connoisseurs of the offbeat and travelers who wish to take a virtual tour of a Paris that no longer exists. Oddly, the film was shot in Belgium and Luxembourg, Germany. Parisian cityscapes, while stunning, would seem to be the work of computer artists. Perhaps they are the real stars.

Villa des Roses delivers pretty pictures in the service of a tiresome historical romance.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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