Judge P.S. Colbert wonders how one orders salsa in Montmartre.
LENA IS FALLING APART.
These are the title cards featured in the American trailer for Making Plans For Lena. Unfortunately, they mislead one to conclude this French import from director Christophe Honoré (Dans Paris) is yet another quirky, romantic, journey-of-self-discovery-story, punctuated by big dramatic moments between the lead and supporting characters.
Thankfully, Making Plans For Lena is NOT yet another quirky, romantic, journey-of-self-discovery-story, punctuated by big dramatic moments between the lead and supporting characters.
Facts of the Case
Lena (Chiara Mastroianni, Love Songs) wants out. Out of her marriage, out of her cramped apartment, and out of noisy, crowded, crazy Paris altogether. With a suitcase and her two children in tow, Lena escapes to her childhood home, a sprawling, ramshackle farm out in the bucolic Brittany countryside. Instead of a pastoral retreat where the clearly frazzled Lena can cool her heels and sort out her life, the farm nearly splits at its seems with occupancy.
Besides her parents, there's Lena's whimsical younger brother Gulven (Julien Honoré, the director's brother) who has never flown the coop, and he's currently attached to the wide-eyed, slightly daffy Elise (Alice Butaud). Middle child Frédérique (Marina Foïs) has come down for the weekend, bringing along her husband, son, and judging by her swollen belly, will be adding yet another child to the proceedings any moment now.
Everyone seems genuinely eager to help Lena get back on her feet any way they can. Of course, there are strings attached; they're called "family ties."
Story wise, there's not much more to it. Lena is unpleasantly surprised to find that her meddling mother has invited estranged husband Nigel (Jean Marc-Barr, Dogville) over to visit his children, and Elise's brother Simon (Louis Garrel, The Dreamers) turns out to be someone Lena used to know. The gathered throng come and goes from the house in various combinations. They explore the countryside, tell stories, share confidences, keep secrets, and because it's a French film, there's also much smoking, wine drinking, and casual nudity.
Ironically, despite featuring a predominantly young and attractive cast, the film's lone sexual encounter occurs between Lena's senior citizen parents. While the scene is hardly pornographic, and in fact, largely suggestive, sixty five year old Marie Christine-Barrault (an Oscar nominee for Cousin Cousine) bravely goes topless. Once I got over the initial shock and revulsion towards the idea, I came to appreciate the beauty of the scene's message: that long-married partners cannot only endure with love, but they can also continue to derive physical pleasure from one another as a result of that love.
This sense of voyeuristic observation permeates Making Plans For Lena. I've never felt so much like a fly on the wall while watching a film. Of course, most films are designed to allow audiences to look in on the wherefores and whys of others, but there is almost always an acknowledgment of that audience, usually given in the form of exposition (i.e. having the characters explain things to each other not for their benefit, but ours).
Here, Honoré's characters make no such allowances: they address each other in the short-hand way that real people who've known each other forever do, with in-jokes, and old scabs being picked at, not necessarily with the intention of inflicting pain, but rather, by habit. Who these people are and what they mean to each other comes out in bits, and finally, no character here emerges fully sketched. The effect is simultaneously frustrating and liberating—how refreshing to find a contemporary film that doesn't feel bound to spoon feed its audience every last morsel, and then wipe its mouth off afterward!
Zeitgiest Films delivers a clean and vivid standard definition 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer with a sturdy Dolby 2.0 Stereo mix. The original French language track has been preserved, with English subtitles offered for those who need them. There are no bonus features, but in order to get the full effect of this deceptively slight slice-of-life study, I'd suggest multiple viewings.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Much of the negative criticism this film has received centers on an allegorical tale that interrupts the flow of events about halfway through, with complainants charging that this ostentatious episode breaks viewer concentration by shattering the existing narrative. Though I understand and appreciate this view, I don't share it.
"If you've ever seen a Christophe Honoré flick before, you'll know what to expect," wrote DVD Verdict Judge Franck Tabouring in his review of Dans Paris.
Making Plans For Lena is my first foray into Honoré country, and not at all what I expected, but thank goodness for that! In fact, watching this film got a lot easier for me once I quit believing I knew what was coming next. While certainly not for everybody, this off-center portrait of dysfunctional family life is a treat for lovers of uniquely French cinema.
Vive le Honoré!
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Studio: Zeitgeist Films
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