To call The Page Turner a slight film isn't an insult. It's part of a vital tradition in French cinema that focuses the camera on the minute details of characters' lives — the subtle interplays and calmly devastating moments — and creates the movie equivalent of a great short story.
With a nod to Claude Chabrol, the master of chilly suspense adept at dissecting the mores of the French upper class, co-writer and director Denis Dercourt sets his tale of vengeance in the rarified world of classical music.
The film opens as young pianist Mèlanie Prouvost (Julie Richalet) prepares for the entrance exam to a prestigious music conservatory. This is a key moment for this daughter of butchers, and the taciturn and determined Mèlanie declares to her supportive parents that if she doesn't pass, she will cease playing the piano.
Both Mèlanie and her mother are slightly uneasy at the audition, feeling provincial and out of place in the grand building surrounded by the children of privilege. But they believe Mèlanie's talent evens the playing field, and as she goes before the judges, she's poised and ready.
Then it happens, a momentary distraction when Ariane Fouchècourt (Catherine Frot), renowned pianist and head judge, interrupts the intense focus and concentration of the performance to blithely sign an autograph. Thrown off her game, the devastated Mèlanie never recovers.
Typical of the buttoned-down style of the film, the tightly wound Mèlanie sheds no tears, just locks up her upright piano for good. When we see her again a decade later, Mèlanie (Déborah Francois) maintains the rigid posture and dour expression of her childhood but inspires confidence with her meticulous thoroughness as an intern at the law firm of Jean Fouchècourt (Pascal Greggory).
Soon she's asked to be a temporary nanny and all-around family helper at the Fouchècourts' large country estate, where Mèlanie quickly ingratiates herself to the woman who destroyed her musical ambitions. In a wonderful twist, she becomes the turner of Ariane's sheet music during a pivotal comeback performance.
With images as clean and uncluttered as the Fouchècourt home, Dercourt sets up a quietly vicious example of Gallic class warfare, as the eerily cool and collected Mèlanie becomes a trusted confidante privy to the cracks in the family's perfect facade.
In its own small, precise way, The Page Turner is the cinematic manifestation of the adage that revenge is a dish best served cold.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 6. Call 313-833-3237.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].