Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger loves movies where actors pretend to be directors pretending to be actors, or where actors pretend to be regular people pretending to be actors. Self reference rules!
"Your play is very hard to act; there are no living characters in it." Nina, The Seagull
La Petite Lili is the analytical cinemaphile's dream. Based on Chekhov's play The Seagull, La Petite Lili was helmed by former Truffaut protegé Claude Miller. It has not one, but two films-within-a-film; it even intercuts flashbacks of the film-within-a-film into the main film while referencing The Seagull, which is a play about a play within a play. The best part? This is all done to make a statement about modern cinema. Young directors clash with old; actresses upstage each other. Jean-Pierre Marielle plays a regular guy (Simon) meeting the actor who will play him, while Michel Piccoli plays the actor who will play Simon. Young Robinson Stévenin plays a director who directs another actor who plays him, while Bernard Giraudeau plays a director who plays himself in the film-within-the-film. If you love meta-films and self-referential cinematic loop-de-loops, you'll be in heaven.
If you like to just watch the movie, you may have a different experience.
Facts of the Case
Lili (Ludivine Sagnier, Swimming Pool), a nubile and hot-blooded young lady, steps out of her dress and rolls around under the trees with Julien Marceaux (Robinson Stévenin). Julien is a passionate, artistic young man who has featured Lili in his first experimental short film.
He screens it at the seaside weekend manor for his friends and family, including his uncle Simon Marceaux (Jean-Pierre Marielle, The Scent of Yvonne) and local gal Jeanne-Marie (Julie Depardieu, Podium). His most vocal critics are his mother, Mado Marceaux (Nicole Garcia, The Story of Marie and Julien), and Julien's stepfather Brice (Bernard Giraudeau, Water Drops On Burning Rocks). Mado is an aging diva of the silver screen, and Brice is the director she's most fond of working with. Julien thinks of them as the enemy, icons of the bloodless establishment.
They are far from bloodless. In fact, Brice has trouble hiding the tent in his trousers whenever Lili walks past. Lili can't help but notice—along with Mado, Julien, Jeanne-Marie, and Simon. Their flirtation enrages everyone for different reasons, and it will come to a head soon. Will Julien survive his own bitterness long enough to release his first feature film?
In her full pre-muse Lolita glory, Ludivine Sagnier does to La Petite Lili what she does to most films she's in: distract everyone's attention away from the main plotline. Your feelings about Sagnier might dominate your perspective on this film. Is she an attention-seeking, barely talented tart? Better look elsewhere for your nightly dose of European culture. Is she an 11.2 on the hottie buzzmeter, a future hall-of-famer? Get comfy, you're gonna like this one.
Miller's film wants to be an exploration of youth striving against the established culture, the politics of art, and a murky web of human emotion. And it is, albeit a clinical one. It seems like Miller is more interested in satisfying a list of intellectual criteria than in making us feel for the characters. This makes La Petite Lili both a fascinating structural study and a listless emotional vehicle.
La Petite Lili holds together much longer than it should. Miller kicks things off with a love scene that is not particularly passionate, but is well-lit, well-composed, and sensual in execution. This scene is built up by a montage of dramatic natural imagery set to a disquieting orchestral number. The first ten minutes or succeed on pure spectacle.
The subsequent Greek tragedy is perceptively detailed, exhaustively dialogued, and incohesively patched together. We understand (but do not feel) that these characters are intricately nestled in an odd dynamic, showing love in strange ways, acting duplicitously towards each other. The only characters to avoid ambivalence are Lili (who is essentially defined by disloyalty) and Simon, who is played with gusto by Jean-Pierre Marielle. I kept waiting for Simon's role to take precedence, eventually realizing that Jean-Pierre Marielle was simply stealing scenes. Julie Depardieu is saddled by fatalistic dialogue, but nonetheless manages to make an impression, while Robinson Stévenin carries the burden of unrelieved angst with aplomb.
Mado and Brice are supposed to be the main characters, but for the life of me I cannot see why. Nicole Garcia and Bernard Giraudeau are not the problem; both capably portray their characters, and they look and sound convincing. The problem is that their characters are pathologically one-dimensional and are given zero slope on the rise/run of character development. In fact, aside from Jeanne-Marie, no one actually grows in the course of the film.
It takes awhile for these negatives to reveal themselves. La Petite Lili is fractured and dramatic enough to keep us waiting for the doom to drop. Whether it is because of the opening storm scenes or the fragile relationships, tragedy seems imminent. Oddly enough, when tragedy actually strikes, it seems anticlimactic. Then the film switches gears to "It's four years later, let's see what everyone's doing these days!" mode, which is simultaneously clever, unexpected, and annoying (though The Seagull shoulders the blame for this convention). From that point onward, tension dissipates, long takes seem empty and pretentious instead of expectant, and the film has very little to say outside of a dissection of filmmaking politics.
In the text interview with Miller in the extras, he says that he broke with Chekhov's last act because he thought his own denouncement more suitable to modern audiences. I'm curious if his break with Chekhov happened just after Lili's departure and Julien's night of self-pity, because there is a distinct drop-off in character development, narrative focus, and depth at that point in La Petite Lili. It makes me wonder whether rewriting cohesive classic works is a wise course of action. Otherwise, the interview is brief, but interesting. Ludivine Sagnier's interview is brief and straightforward, perhaps because her interview is missing text between pages one and two. She sheds light on her childhood fascination with Miller and discusses her career in the context of Lili's character. It is a fluff piece given a sophisticated European flair. The rest of the extras are exactly what you'd expect them to be, although the photo gallery benefits because of Miller's visual touch.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In fact, visuals are La Petite Lili's major strength aside from its convoluted structure of cinematic self-reference. Miller somehow manages to make grass seem evocative, to say nothing of walls, clouds, and cows. The camera quivers at the right time, in the right way, to suggest realms of hidden meaning. Cuts are used to great effect. La Petite Lili is highly watchable, even when the emotional spigot is sputtering. The scenes that possess emotional weight are even more powerful for the visual style.
First Run Features has delivered this visual splendor in mixed style. The subtitles loom large and intrude over most of the bottom half of the screen. Sadly, they are burned in. Even more sadly, the film doesn't appear to be anamorphically enhanced, although I couldn't definitively determine that from the setup I used to review this disc. Furthermore, the image suffers strange motion effects, a mixture of blur and stutter. This is most noticeable in a closeup of Jeanne-Marie spying on the lawn from a window, where her chin seems to jump through hyperspace. That said, the colors are splendid, the detail deep. Still moments resonate with clarity and naturally interesting color timbres light the screen. Author's Note: La Petite Lili was actually shot on video, not film. The motion artifacts are not blur but strobing, which is an unfortunate side effect of quick movement shot on video. This means that First Run's transfer is accurately reflecting inherent artifacts. In fact, this is a ringing endorsement for the camerawork, because it fooled me into thinking it was on film.
La Petite Lili has a lush and meaningful soundtrack. We're given one option, French Stereo. Those who love choice will not like that, but all I ask for is the originally intended audio track. This one is engaging in its clarity and sense of depth.
Intellectuals, rejoice! Sagnier fans, rejoice! Everyone else—flee! Flee, I say!
Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul;
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
• Interviews with Claude Miller and Ludivine Sagnier
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