Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees doesn't sting like a bee, but she'd love to float like this wonderful French film.
Elsa: How long does she live?
This French family film tells a simple story with a lightness of touch that makes many American films seem like hippopotami trying to fly on butterfly wings. Appealing yet unsentimental, The Butterfly (Le Papillon) is a quietly winsome movie that shows how two very different people come to form an unlikely friendship…one that will open up new possibilities for them both.
Facts of the Case
Elderly butterfly collector Julien (Michel Serrault, Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud) finds his quiet existence disrupted when eight-year-old Elsa (Claire Bouanich) moves into his apartment building with her young single mother (Nade Dieu). Since her mother is often absent, young Elsa is often left to fend for herself, and Julien reluctantly looks after her when her mother is nowhere to be found. Little does he know that he has opened the door to a beguiling new world for the lonely, inquisitive little girl: Not only is she fascinated by the butterflies that she sees in his apartment, but receiving any attention from an adult is an appealing novelty—one that leads her to take a drastic step. When she is stood up one too many times by her mother, she stows away with Julien on an expedition to find a butterfly he has sought for years.
Saddled with an unexpected and unwanted traveling companion, Julien nevertheless believes that he must take the responsibility of looking after her. Unbeknownst to him, however, Elsa's mother has involved the police in a search for her missing daughter, and soon Julien is widely believed to be a kidnapper.
It's difficult to describe the plot of The Butterfly without making it sound hokey and mawkish. To say that Julien and Elsa form a friendship that will change their lives risks making this film sound like a sugary hug-fest with lots of greeting-card moments. Even though the plot synopsis may set off warning sirens, however, the film is refreshing, never cloying. The story isn't told in a calculated way; scenes that a less skilled director might have exploited for their heart-tugging potential are related matter-of-factly, with no swelling musical cues to evoke an emotional response. Writer-director Philippe Muyl is so assured that he even skips some scenes altogether when they aren't necessary: For example, we don't have to sit through a dramatic confrontation about Julien's supposed abduction of Elsa. Muyl gives us the information we need to note what has happened and to draw the logical conclusion about how it played out, and then moves on to the important thing: how the characters respond. It's remarkable to see this kind of restraint, and it's definitely a relief not to have to endure the expected histrionics, tangential as they are to the story.
What's also notable is the honesty and simplicity with which this story plays out. The relationship between the two leads doesn't develop in a smooth progression, for one thing: It has plenty of downs as well as ups, even once they have come to be fond of each other. Since this is largely a movie about their interaction, young Bouanich and film veteran Serrault carry the film, and during all the shifting and evolving dynamics of their relationship they both seem completely natural and spontaneous. Muyl must know children very well to create as convincing a character as Elsa, and in young Bouanich he has discovered the perfect performer to bring her to life. Bouanich is an extraordinary find: She doesn't actively try to be adorable, as so many child actors seem to do, yet she touchingly evokes Elsa's vulnerability. She rarely smiles, but when she does, it's enchanting. She creates an Elsa who is believable in every respect; although she can be disarmingly frank, unlike many film children she isn't obnoxiously precocious or knowing. Perhaps most astonishing is that, as in the best performances, whether by children or adults, she doesn't seem to be acting at all. She is simple and direct, and entirely unself-conscious.
Opposite this remarkable newcomer is the equally remarkable veteran of 100 films, Michel Serrault. As Julien, Serrault creates a subtly layered character. He's not just the cranky old neighbor who wants peace and quiet, although there are some elements of that familiar type in his makeup. He's also not the embittered old hermit who is helped out of his symbolic cocoon by his acquaintanceship with a needy youngster. (Well, not entirely.) Julien is an intriguing and believable mixture of sometimes contrary impulses: impatient yet kind; quick to anger yet perceptive about others' feelings; brisk and no-nonsense yet conscientious. We aren't surprised when his relationship with Elsa becomes a literal tug-of-war.
Although his sparring with Elsa tells us a lot about him, he also takes center stage in several scenes that are breathtaking in their unfolding of deeper knowledge of his character. In one standout monologue, Julien tells Elsa a bedtime story that he illustrates with hand shadows. It starts out being a visually wondrous scene about compelling storytelling, but it gradually becomes a riveting emotional revelation. It's a deeply revealing scene about Julien, which shows Serrault at his most powerful, and it's also memorable for the silent response on Elsa's face as she watches and listens. It opens up new possibilities of bleakness—a bleakness that most family films would fear to suggest—but it allows us, and Elsa, a deeper knowledge of Julien, and thus more compassion for him. These sequences are crucial to the overall impact of the film, since—although it is ultimately an affirming experience—there is a bittersweet undercurrent of awareness of the passage of time, the brevity of life. This kind of awareness is natural to the aging Julien, but it's a new idea to young Elsa, and it's an important part of the education that she gains over the course of the film.
Although the characters and their interactions are the raison d'etre of the film, the visual world is crucial to the story. It's exquisitely photographed, with intimate shots of flora and fauna, and a particularly mesmerizing sequence in which a rare butterfly emerges from its chrysalis. Besides offering a beautiful backdrop, however, which is lush and rewarding in its own right, the verdant mountain scenery also catalyzes some of the changes Julien and Elsa undergo. Here city-bred Elsa is finally offered the chance to see life and death at close quarters and to learn about nature in all its faces. Again, scenes like these could easily have become too swollen with significance, but Muyl unfurls them quietly, letting them accumulate without overtly commenting on them. The film isn't sentimental about death, the propagation of species, or other biological occurrences. The fresh, lively music by Nicolas Errera provides the perfect accompaniment: It offers an understated but deft counterpart to the action, establishing a mood free of overblown emotion that can still convey the wonder that comes with discovery, whether of nature or of people.
The visual transfer for this film does full justice to the beautiful nature photography: Colors are pure and gemlike, and images are clear and unsullied. Although the audio mix has the same exquisite clarity, and ambient sounds are authentic and immersive, dialogue flicks back and forth between center and rear speakers moment by moment, often if actors turn their head just one centimeter, and this is wildly distracting. In addition, although this isn't an audio issue, it's disappointing that there are no subtitles for the delightful song that plays over the end credits: a duet between Bouanich and Serrault that captures the dynamic of Elsa and Julien's relationship—she asking questions, he answering them.
Extras are rather sparse, and I would have enjoyed a commentary or featurette about the making of the film, especially to learn more about the butterfly wrangling. The French edition offered extras unavailable here, including interviews with the lead actors. At least we get bios of Muyl and Serrault, a photo gallery of twelve stills (a couple of which take us behind the scenes), and the original trailer. There are also trailers for a handful of other First Run films.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Butterfly's frank and unsentimental handling of some topics may concern some parents, and those with young children may want to wait until their kids are older to share this film with them. At the very least, parents may find that their children will have as many questions as the inquisitive Elsa after watching the film, which touches on such issues as poaching, abortion, parental abandonment, mental institutions, and the sex lives of flowers. There is also one scene that will distress tender-hearted viewers. Its shock value is entirely necessary to the film, and it's handled with discretion, but if your child was traumatized by Bambi, it's a scene that you'll want to prepare him or her for.
The Butterfly is a rare and lovely film: emotionally satisfying without being sappy or maudlin, and as rewarding for adults as it is for children—indeed, probably even more so. The exceptionally high quality of writing, performance, and directing makes this one of the best family films I have ever seen. When we join Julien and Elsa on their quest, the time flies by on butterfly wings.
Absolutely not guilty. The defendant is to be released back into the wild.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
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