Bring along a baguette and a bottle of vin blanc and join Judge Bryan Byun for an idyll in the French countryside.
"One swallow doesn't make a summer!"—Adrien Rochas
Here's the funny thing about movie plot formulas: Most of the time, they make for dull, obvious stories, where the average viewer can guess every development long before it happens, including who lives or dies, or falls in love, by the end. Formula plots, like Big Macs, are what you crave when you don't want to be surprised, when you want to know exactly what you're getting and what it's going to taste like. When a movie doesn't follow the formula, it's usually a good thing; it means, oftentimes, that the filmmaker has a strong personal vision, and storytelling instincts that steer the narrative away from the trite and clichéd.
Sometimes, though, a movie deviates from the formula and the result is strangely disappointing. Things you expected to happen don't happen, and instead of being pleasantly surprised and invigorated, you find yourself wishing for the familiar, because even that would be preferable to what you're actually getting.
That's how I felt while watching The Girl from Paris (the original French title, Une Hirondelle a Fait le Printemps, translates to "one swallow makes spring"). The premise is a simple and familiar one: Sandrine (Mathilde Seigner), a young woman living in Paris and working as an Internet trainer, grows weary of life in the big city and decides to move to the countryside. She takes agriculture courses and eventually buys a goat farm in France's picturesque Rhone-Alps region, where she hopes to live a simpler, slower-paced life.
The farm's owner, Adrien (Michel Serrault), is a cantankerous old codger whose tolerance for pampered city folk is even shorter than his temper. Looking to retire, Adrien reluctantly agrees to sell his farm to Sandrine, despite his doubts about the ability of a woman to operate a farm, on one condition: that he be allowed to live on the farm for a year and a half, until he is able to move into his family home in Grenoble.
It's not hard to guess where things go from there. City gal Sandrine and rustic Adrien butt heads from the beginning—the only thing they have in common, it seems, is a stubborn streak a mile wide. Adrien is smugly certain that Sandrine will never survive the rough country life, but she does, to the old man's consternation…and grudging approval. Slowly but surely, each earns the respect of the other, and out of that respect grows a mutual appreciation, trust, and inevitably, familial love. Two generations and two ways of life are reconciled, each learning from the other and emerging stronger for the experience. The end.
This is the first feature-length film by writer-director Christian Carion, and it's to his credit that The Girl from Paris, despite its familiar old-versus-young, city-versus-country themes, sidesteps most of the obvious plot developments. There isn't a third-act catastrophe that brings Sandrine and Adrien together. The mysterious figure Sandrine sometimes sees hang gliding through the hills doesn't turn out to be a hunky free spirit who rekindles her passion for life. There's a death, but it isn't who you think it is. These are all good things that work in the film's favor.
What isn't so good is that, for the most part, there isn't much that actually does happen in this languidly paced, resolutely inoffensive morsel of a tale. Sandrine turns the farm into a kind of bed and breakfast for eco-tourists, and her guests are uniformly pleasant—and depart without making a single dent in the story. An old flame, Gérard (Frédéric Pierrot), pays Sandrine a visit, and the two spend the night together, but their relationship is never more than an unresolved side note. There are long, leisurely shots of the rugged vistas of the Vercourt mountains, scenes of Sandrine leading her goats to pasture, working around the farm, riding horses. Here and there are little dabs of humor, but no rollicking flights of comedy; there are poignant moments, but no dark nights of the soul. There are instances of emotional distress, but—aside from two graphic animal-slaughter scenes meant to convey the gritty, unromantic reality of farm life, and one sequence set to a Phil Collins tune that should be excised from all American prints of the film—nothing that disturbs the placid, pastoral atmosphere in any lasting way. At several moments, I found myself wishing for anything—even some crude slapstick—that would jostle the film out of its middle-of-the-road groove.
There's nothing wrong with this, necessarily. The Girl from Paris doesn't try to be anything more than a gentle, lighthearted portrait of the lives of small farmers in rural France, so it's not exactly fair to expect emotional fireworks or biting wit from this lowest of low-concept stories. Carion isn't aiming for the stony tragedy of Jean de Florette or the quirky romance of Chocolat. What there is of this wisp of a story is pleasantly watchable and never dull, thanks to expressive, charismatic performances by its lead actors, skillful, perceptive writing, and a deftly paced narrative that moves slowly but never lingers long enough to become tiresome.
When it's over, though, I find myself at a loss to identify exactly what, if anything, I've taken with me from this picture. There's a lot going on here, thematically—the generation gap, the survival of the small farmer in the face of modernization, the thin line between independence and isolation—but at the same time, there isn't much going on, either, because the writing never delves deeply enough into any of these themes to reach the core. It's a quiet film, but too often it's quiet because it hasn't much to say. Carion admits in the making-of featurette accompanying the film that, in writing this very personal story (Carion's own father, who died in 1984, inspired the character of Adrien), he felt shy about digging too deeply into his own feelings. It shows.
Carion does touch a bit upon the topic of family farms being threatened by corporate agriculture, and the inability of the government to do more good than harm for the small farmer, but this dramatically rich vein is never tapped in any meaningful way. And when the film ends, it just…ends, with a bare minimum of closure, which is admirable in its restraint, and true to the emotional reticence at the heart of the story; but narrative integrity doesn't always make for compelling storytelling.
Koch Lorber's presentation of The Girl from Paris on DVD is more lavish than expected for a lower-profile release like this. (Although it was quite popular in France and was nominated for two César awards, including Best First Feature, it didn't make much of a splash stateside.) There's a half-hour featurette, simply titled "Featurette," that turns out to be a amiably rambling video journal of Carion revisiting the various locations and catching up with the local farmers he worked with during filming. (In the featurette's most amusing scene, we learn that the goat farmer whose goats Carion hired for the production decided to quit goat farming after he and his wife saw their animals on the big screen—which prompts Carion to exclaim, "I make a film about a farmer retiring, and it makes a farmer retire? That sucks!")
There's also a "Behind the Scenes" section offering brief glimpses of the filming of various scenes ("Last Scene," "First Scene," "Snow," "Nap," "Dance," "Pig"), and a set of three deleted scenes—one involving an amusing prank by Adrien on a hapless supermarket employee, another funny scene with Adrien offering surreptitious help to Sandrine, and an alternate ending that's a little cozier than the one used in the final edit—any of which would have added welcome flavor to the story and should have been kept. Finally, there's an entertaining blooper reel that provides some interesting alternate takes of several scenes.
Video quality is fairly good—as it should be, given the movie's stunning landscapes. Carion uses mostly natural lighting in his scenes, for maximum realism, and image sharpness and grain suffer slightly as a result, but colors are vibrant and rich, and the subdued interior hues—mostly gradations of brown and gray—are well rendered, without obvious distortions or bleeding. Audio is presented in your choice of Dolby 5.1 Surround or 2.0 Stereo, in French, with English-only subtitles, and the surround sound is exceptional. I tend to forget that it's the quieter movies, with their subtle ambient effects, that often make the best use of the surround channels, and they are well used here, with gently immersive rainfalls and the clatter of farm animals trotting briskly across the screen.
I didn't dislike The Girl from Paris, but I didn't especially love it, either. It didn't linger in my mind or leave much of an aftertaste either way. It satisfied without leaving a lasting impression. It ended; I went away. That may be precisely the result that Carion was aiming for—to make a film as plain and unassuming as the people of rural France. If so, I applaud his vision. Just don't make me watch it again.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Lorber
• Theatrical Trailer
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