Empire Pictures // 2002 // 94 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // February 15th, 2007
"Stay with me. Dance with me."
In La Vie Promise ("The Promised Life") Isabelle Huppert (I Heart Huckabees) stars as Sylvia, a down-and-out, aging prostitute who plies her wares on the streets of Nice, France. Sylvia has a 14-year-old daughter, Laurance (Maud Forget), who hangs around despite her mom's insistence that she wants to be left alone. However, one night Laurance sneaks into her mother's apartment and hides in the closet while two men forcibly try to extort money from Sylvia. Fearing for her mom's life, Laurance charges out and stabs one of the men to death. Fearing retribution and/or the law, the women hop on a train for a trip into the French countryside.
Though the two quickly seem to grow close on their journey, Sylvia accidentally loses her daughter. In a startling coincidence, they both encounter the same man, the enigmatic Joshua (Pascal Greggory), a gruff, yet kindly, stranger who reunites the pair and joins them on their travels. Sylvia leads the group to the French countryside, to the house of her ex-husband and their young son. She has little idea what she will do when she gets arrives, but she seems doggedly determined to get there.
La Vie Promise is a fair movie that is pretty much worth watching singularly for Huppert's performance. Huppert is one of France's best actresses, and this film is pretty much serves solely as a showcase for her amazing talent. When a beautiful actress, like Huppert, plays a street-walking prostitute there is a real danger that that woman's glamour will undermine the integrity of the role (most recently evidenced by Alice Braga in Lower City). Charlize Theron wisely resorted to prosthetics on her way to an Oscar win for playing a prostitute in Monster. While Sylvia is not quite as seedy as Theron's character, Aileen, Huppert's performance is actually stronger, and more subtle, than Theron's. Huppert uses no make-up, and no histrionics, to impart the longing and turbulence of her character. It is a flawless performance that elevates the entire film to heights it almost has no right to achieve.
The biggest flaw with La Vie Promise is exposed in the film's opening. Over several pretentious shots of flowers drifting in the breeze we hear Laurance waxing lyrical about the hidden meaning of each individual breed. Periodically, throughout the film, director Olivier Dahan pauses the action to show shots of the brooding French countryside while the film's characters ruminate on life's deeper meanings. Of course these shots are meant to highlight the stark difference between nature's beauty and the harrowing temporal lives of Sylvia and Laurance, but the contrast is too obvious and heavy handed. Certainly, if anyone can turn a prostitute-on-the-run story into a beautiful meditation on existence it would be a French director, but, sadly, Dahan just doesn't have the skill to pull it off.
Compounding the problem is the shaky camera style, which is very popular in cop shows and over stylized commercials for soft drinks. My guess is Dahan thought this would add a contemporary, hip look to the movie, but it actually serves to distract us from the on-screen drama, which often didn't need any assistance. Additionally, the infusion of French pop music in the film's soundtrack seemed a little flimsy compared to the film's weighty subject matter. It's kind of like putting some Dido songs in the movie Nil by Mouth.
Unfortunately, once an actress hits 40, great roles start becoming pretty scarce (unless your name's Meryl Streep). Because of this many gifted actresses sign on to mediocre films merely because they are given a three-dimensional character to play. So while I can't fault Huppert for taking this role, I hope her future projects will be more in line with her prodigious talent.
While Empire Pictures has done a decent job on the DVD transfer (the French countryside is going to beckon those who has never been) there are no extras to speak of.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Empire Pictures
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated