Valérie Donzelli’s last film Que D’Amour! was based on a play by 18th century French playwright Marivaux. For her latest feature she again goes back in time to revive an unused script written for Francois Truffaut by Jean Gurault in the 1970s. The source material for Marguerite&Julien, premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, pre-dates Marivaux by a good 200 years and tells the real life tale of an aristocratic brother and sister who indulged in an illegal and incestuous love affair. Donzelli throws a lot at the staging and setting of the film using several techniques reminscent of the great director Truffaut himself – the frozen tableaux that open a scene and then spring into life – but the end result is a drab, lifeless film which fails to explore the controversial storyline and instead offers a confusing mix of timelines, styles and techniques.
Since childhood, Julien and Marguerite de Ravalet (Jérémie Elkaïm and Anaïs Demoustier), have alway had a special bond. As they grow older this bond transforms into a unbridled passion which neither of them can control. When their parents Jean de Ravalet (Frédéric Pierrot) and Madame de Ravalet (Aurélia Petit) realise what is happening they separate the two and marry Marguerite off to a middle aged tax collecter (Raoul Fernandez). Julien is sent abroad to continue his education, but nothing can keep the siblings apart. And when Julien hears of his sister’s unhappy marriage, he decides to go to her rescue and together try and start a new life in England.
It’s not immediately obvious why Donzelli chose to recount the tale of incestuous love as a bedtime story to a bunch of young girls in an orphanage dormitory. As the film kicks off, the girls listen wide-eyed as the storyteller revels in the licentious details of the illegal passion between a brother and a sister. Is Donzelli suggesting incest is as worthy a subject matter for childhood nightime reading as Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella? Real life couple,Elkaïm and Demoustier fail to convey the depths of passion that would push two people to defy convention and put their own lives as risk. Throw in a medieval castle, a helicopter, a classic car and a soundtrack featuring songs by The Artwoods and the Shangri-Las and this is a fantastic film in the true sense of the word.