Appellate Judge James A. Stewart says it's been a quiet week in Lille, where the women are performance artists in the guise of murderous clowns, the men are giant carnival head operators, and the children are heard only by cell phone.
"Chicken and me—2003. The start of a great romance."
As When the Sea Rises (Quand La Mer Monte …) opens, a woman takes off a ring and sets it on a sink. We then see her rubbing something bloody red onto her arms, just before she reaches into a basket whose contents include a gun.
It may look like a ritual murder has just taken place, but she's merely getting ready for a stage show, Nasty Business. In reel life, Nasty Business is performed by Irene; Irene happens to be played by Yolande Moreau (Amelie), the Belgian comedienne who toured with the same one-woman show. The show, by the way, opens with a clown having just killed her lover. Her opening words are "Nasty business. I got mixed up in a crime. Awful, ain't it? He's dead." Don't worry; the gun's just a squirt gun.
When the Sea Rises serves up a less-than-glamorous slice of performing life, with adultery and a few bits of surreal imagery added to spice things up, and sets it all against the backdrop of the star's regular act. I think I've stumbled on the French-Belgian version of A Prairie Home Companion.
Facts of the Case
Irene's life is a dreary mix of driving highways along the French-Belgian border, calling home to her husband and children, and performing nightly shows. When scooter driver Dries (Wim Willaert) helps her deal with car trouble, Irene thanks him with tickets to her show. He's called up on stage to join in the fun and is astonished by her performance; "You make a living clowning?" he asks incredulously afterwards.
Sure enough, he's back the next night. Irene's not receptive to her newfound fan at first, but she takes pity on him and offers him a lift home after a tire on his moped is slashed. Home for Dries is a garage full of giant carnival heads; it seems his job is to operate the things.
A woman who performs as a murderous clown meets a man who operates giant carnival heads? It sounds like a match made in French-Belgian film heaven, one you know cannot last forever.
If you haven't figured it out, the stage show here, titled Sale affaire, du sexe et du crime in French, isn't your typical night at the comedy club. Yolande Moreau performs in a mask, her arms red with stage blood, as she tells the life story of a murderess. Then she invites some poor man from the audience onstage for comic romantic banter. It's edgy performance art; in places, even the audiences shown in the movie seem to have only nervous laughter for it.
Yolande Moreau wrote Sale affaire to "say something about emptiness, going off the rails and the difficulty of life," she says in the booklet accompanying this DVD. "To get across the idea of emptiness, of a desperate desire to be loved, I wore a mask, which removed the character from reality and brought to mind an Ensor character or Munch's 'The Scream.' "
As Irene, Moreau brings reality back to her story of emptiness and desperate desire. The middle-aged touring clown spends her evenings watching fishing programs on TV and spends her days asking for directions from people who don't know where the theater is, eating in nondescript cafeterias, and singing along with opera as she drives highways marked by electric power towers. Although she's the center of attention on stage, it's no surprise when Irene is drawn to a man who shows her attention offstage. Wim Willaert as Dries is well-meaning, but slightly unnerving. When Dries brings Irene home to meet his foster parents, you'll be able to tell quickly that this isn't a regular occurrence. Moreau and Willaert make the gradual affection real through small gestures, such as sharing a laugh over some windup singing lobsters. The movie offers glimpses of their fantasies of each other and two brief scenes of lovemaking, but it's these small gestures that convince us that the pair are in love.
The cinematography shows a familiarity with life on the road, in the bleak landscape that becomes a little brighter and more scenic once Irene is no longer alone and in little details such as her wait for a restroom stall at a crowded cafeteria. Some landscapes are seen merely as blurs from a car window. Shadows in some outdoor scenes are a bit too pronounced, but the transfer appears crisp and clean; I didn't find any problems with the sound, whether music or ambient noise was in the background.
As for extras, you get a theatrical trailer and, more helpfully, a booklet that includes interviews with co-directors Yolande Moreau and Gilles Portes. The interviews are also featured on the movie's official site.
What else do you need to know about this movie? Possibly that movie posters online suggest that it played in some theaters as When the Tide Comes In. It also brought Yolande Moreau Cesar awards for best first film and best actress in 2005.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As with A Prairie Home Companion, this movie assumes some familiarity with its star's work. Since When the Sea Rises expands on the themes of Yolande Moreau's stage show, it would play better to someone familiar with that show and its themes, just as someone who can hum "Tishomongo Blues" would enjoy A Prairie Home Companion more. The booklet asserts Moreau's themes; it's helpful, but it doesn't illustrate them fully. Ideally, Moreau's Nasty Business would have been revealed more in the extras package through excerpts.
It also may help to be familiar with the song, "Quand La Mer Monte." It may be a popular song along the French-Belgian border, but it's new to me. I can understand just enough to know that it's about a romance that's over, but its nuances admittedly escape me.
The back of the DVD case proclaims this one an "off-beat romantic comedy." The movie has laughs, but they tend to punctuate scenes meant to reveal character. When the Sea Rises moves at a slow pace and is at times dreary, reflecting the lives of the lead characters.
When the Sea Rises presents two interesting, offbeat characters and lets us into their lives. It's doesn't have big laughs or big statements, but in a small way, it makes a statement about loneliness and creativity.
I liked the performances by Yolande Moreau and Wim Willaert, though I thought the movie could have used more of the dry humor that comes across in small doses. The glimpses of Moreau's stage show were intriguing to me since I've seen some performance art pieces. If you're intrigued as well, check out the movie's Web site to find out more about Yolande Moreau.
I'll acquit the strong performances of Yolande Moreau and Wim Willaert, but When the Sea Rises is guilty of losing something in translation.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
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