Margaux Hartmann and The Lodger are both films about middle-aged grieving widows: one who gets a new lease on life, and one who’s stuck in the past.
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Every year, I look forward to the Cinefranco Film Festival, Toronto’s showcase for French-language cinema. In non-pandemic years, it’s often the only opportunity to catch some of these films on the big screen. In a pandemic year, it’s a chance to get an early glimpse at some of the best French-language films of the past year, which are, fortunately, streaming across Canada. Past editions have featured Seventh Row favourites like Jeune Juliette, An Impossible Love, Québexit, In the Name of the Land, and way back when, even Céline Sciamma’s Water Lilies.
Two of the highlights of this year’s festival are both films about middle-aged women, both directed by men, and they are entirely polar opposite stories about grieving widows. While Ludovic Bergery’s late-in-life coming-of-ager Margaux Hartmann is the story of a fifty-something woman who has to find a new life to live after the death of her husband, The Lodger is a campy horror film about a batty old lady stuck in the past with her dead husband. Both films give their lead actresses — Emmanuelle Béart and Jacqueline Bisset, respectively — lots to chew on, and as far as I know, neither has a distribution deal in Canada as of yet.
Having married her husband when she was twenty, Margaux Hartmann (Emmanuelle Béart) is suddenly adrift when, now in her late fifties, her husband dies. Margaux Hartmann opens with Margaux taking a train to move into her sister’s guest house in Versailles, where she plans to do a master’s degree in German. As a mature student, she feels immediately out of place, and gravitates toward another misfit: the only gay student in her class, Aurélien (Vincent Dedienne in top form), who is also the only person of colour.
Margaux’s attempts at finding her footing in this new world and life reveal how naive she is and how sheltered she’s been from the world because of the institution of heterosexual marriage. Her first attempt at sex with a man her age goes horribly awry, not just because he’s her professor, but because she, as he puts it, seems to want to have sex like a teenager. She has better luck going on internet dates, and it’s an amusing twist that her best sexual connection ends up being with a man who refuses to even go on a date — they meet in his apartment for the first time — let alone do small talk, and kicks her out as soon as they’re finished. He also has conspicuously obscured all the photos in his apartment; his unwillingness to give his name or make an emotional connection would send warning bells to most people.
The film is filled with wonderful little character details, which help the film transcend what could be a fairly cliched mould. Before going on her first date, Margaux goes to the pharmacy to buy condoms, and then quickly disposes of the box, stuffing all twelve of them in her pocket on her way out. She goes on a date with a man who orders a glass of milk and then adds sugar to it, a scene I found more disturbing and believability-straining than the departmental orgy she unexpectedly finds herself at one night. (Are grad student orgies a thing in France? They aren’t in North America.) It’s also rich with the details of all the ways Margaux never grew up because she threw herself into marriage: she doesn’t really know who she is, what she wants to do, or how to have a mature relationship, sexual or otherwise. Though the film understands that finding herself is something that will take time, it ends somewhat unsatisfyingly just as she’s making headway, but decides to run away, instead.
The Lodger (Messe Basse)
Baptiste Drapeau’s feature debut, The Lodger, finds Jacqueline Bisset as Elizabeth, a widow of twenty years who still carries on conversations with her dead husband, Victor (François-Dominique Blin). In fact, she has a mannequin stand in for Victor, who is dressed daily, sits at the dinner table with them, and for whom she even draws baths. Nursing student Julie (Alice Isaaz) gets introduced into this very absurd world because she needs a cheap place to live for school, and Elizabeth obliges with a room in her house. Of course, it comes with some bizarre strings, including playing along with what seems to be Elizabeth’s fantasy.
Of course, from the film’s first moments, which find Bisset in an extravagant grey wig and Julie in innocent pastel or white clothes, it’s clear that the film exists in a bizarre, heightened, genre world. At first, Julie kindly indulges Elizabeth. But things get eerie when Elizabeth seems to know what’s happening when she’s not there — informed by Victor’s ghost — and then, a lock seems to have been cut from Julie’s hair, and she thinks she sees Victor’s ghost. Before long, the mannequin seems to be moving from one place to the next when Julie isn’t in the room.
With its bonkers, aging-yet-fabulous leading lady; her kind-turned-sinister intentions; and a very silly plot that is deliberately funny, The Lodger reminded me of Neil Jordan’s Greta, featuring Isabelle Huppert’s handbag of doom. Like Greta, a sweet, young blond woman falls victim to an older woman with Problems, and by the end, there’s a blood bath, if a funny one. It’s a horror film without much on its mind aside from a desire to entertain, but it certainly succeeds at that.
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Discover the films of Céline Sciamma
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