Can an entire film be built around the near-silent performance of its lead actress? Director Frédéric Fonteyne seems to think so, and because of Emmanuelle Devos (The Beat My Heart Skipped, Kings and Queens) he comes damn close to succeeding. He presents a simple melodrama about domestic betrayal with stark, immaculate images and very little dialogue (this may be one of the quietest films ever made). Fonteyne's long silences and lingering close-ups will test the reserve of even the most patient of viewers, but when the camera settles on Devos, it's hard to turn away.
It's the '30s, and pregnant Elisa (Devos) lives on the outskirts of a French mining town where she raises her twin daughters, tends to the family garden and adores her bruiser of a husband, Gilles (Clovis Cornillac). Conversation in any form is nearly absent from this household, and yet all seems well until Elisa's younger sister, Victorine (Laura Smet), comes around a bit too often and Gilles starts leaving the house at odd hours.
It doesn't come as a shock that the two are having an affair. What's surprising is the incredible insensitivity these adulterers show toward Elisa. Gilles is a thickheaded lout who makes no attempt to hide his infidelities, going so far as to seek sympathy from his wife when it ends. Victorine is vain and selfish, untroubled by the pain she has brought to her sister.
But rather than become enraged, Elisa endures their treachery in silence, hoping to save her marriage. She treats Gilles' obsession with her sister as a disease that he'll eventually be cured of. Her complicity is upsetting, yet Devos convinces you that Elisa's silent determination comes from something more complex than feminist complacency.
The French language title, La Femme de Gilles, is a double entendre that the English translation misses, "femme" meaning both wife and woman. As the affair causes husband and wife to become strangers in their own marriage, Elisa must fight to be Gilles' woman rather than just his wife. This being a French film, she learns that her triumph may not be worth the existential cost.
This film certainly isn't for everyone. Though the cinematography is exquisite, Fonteyne spends an incredible amount of time following Elisa through her household chores. Everything the character feels must be interpreted by action or facial expression alone. For most, this wordless examination of the friction between domestic security and emotional turmoil will incite new levels of boredom. For the rest, it will offer a carefully shaded portrait of a woman who defies easy analysis and leave you guessing about the tragic workings of the heart.
In French with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 and 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, April 14-15, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 16. Call 313-833-3237.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].