For her first film in the director’s chair since 2013’s Un Beau Dimanche, Nicole Garcia has adapted Milena Agus’ best selling novel Mal di Pietre and drafted in Academy award winning actress Marion Cotillard and the brooding Louis Garrel in the lead roles. Beautifully filmed by Christophe Beaucarne who also worked on Coco before Chanel,Mal de Pierres looks on paper to be a sure-fire hit. Yet the story of a wilful, sexually frustrated young woman growing up in 1940s France falls disappointingly flat. Cotillard is never less than excellant as Gabrielle, the daughter of a rural, middle class family who is too independent minded for their bourgeois sensibilities and the film initially seems set to explore some interesting terrain – female sexuality, female emancipation, unrequited love. But it never digs below the surface to challenge received ideas. And Garcia has instead opted for melodrama and a humdrum love triangle with a highly contrived ending sounding the final death knell.
Gabrielle (Cotillard) lives with her parents and younger sister on a lavender farm in the south of France and dreams of escaping her ordinary existence through an all-consuming love affair. After her very public attempt to seduce a local schoolteacher, her parents present her with a choice. Either marry José (Alex Brendemuhl), a seasonal Spanish worker on the farm or face the madhouse. Duly married-off to José, she is resigned to an uneventful life with her new husband until she is sent to a spa in the Swiss Alps for a cure aimed at helping her concieve a child. While there she meets the debonair André Sauvage (Garrel), a handsome solder gravely wounded in the war in Indochina. These two damaged souls are drawn to each other and it seems Gabrielle will finally experience the passion she has long-awaited.
Although Cotillard pulls out all the stops to make Gabrielle a sympathetic figure it’s an almost insurmountable task. The young woman is hopelessly self-obsessed and childlike in her desire to experience undying love. To the point where she ignores the potential passion in her marriage to José, also a former soldier who fled to France after the Spanish civil war. He doesn’t smoulder as much as Garrell, (but then who does!). Yet there is an aura of dash and daring about him which Gabrielle stubbornly refuses to see. Time slows almost to a standstill at the spa giving the audience plenty of time to tire of Gabrielle and her breathless swooning. If Garcia’s film, which was in the official competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a faithful adaptation of Agus’ novel, it’s difficult to see the basis for its huge success.