Review: L’Aimée (Arnaud Desplechin, 2007)October 13, 2007
It was a hard act to follow, but, for me, Arnaud Desplechin has never lived up to the promise of his 1996 romantic epic My Sex Life, or How I Got Into an Argument, undoubtedly one of the greatest films of the ’90s. To be honest, bad word of mouth steered me away from Esther Kahn (2000) and I know almost nothing about his 2003 film Playing ‘In the Company of Men’ which as far as I know has never played in New York. In 2004 Desplechin flew back into everybody’s radar with Kings and Queen, but I liked only half of that film (the Emmanuelle Devos/Maurice Garrel half).
His newest film L’Aimee (The Loved One), which premiered at Venice this year, is a 70-minute side project that started out as a home movie and has ended up as, well, one of the most beautiful home movies you’re ever likely to see. When Desplechin heard that his father was selling the family home in Roubaix in Northern France, he decided to record the house for posterity. But instead of popping over with his camcorder, Desplechin arrived with a 35mm camera and one of France’s greatest DPs, Caroline Champetier (who shot his La Sentinelle in 1992 as well as films for Godard, Rivette, the Straubs, Chantal Akerman, Andre Techine and Benoit Jacquot over her nearly 30 year career). And rather than make the kind of wry, self-deprecating self-portrait that an American documentarian like Ross McElwee or Alan Berliner would conjure up from the same scenario, Desplechin instead turns his father’s story into an oblique meditation on Vertigo (a sacred text no doubt), complete with vanished women, powerless men, doppelgangers and liberal use of the Bernard Herrmann score. Incessantly smoking and rummaging among photos and documents, Desplechin grills his very accommodating father about his mother who died of TB (in the house he’s now selling) when his father was a baby. There is very little about Desplechin himself; if this is the house he himself grew up in and has fond memories of you wouldn’t know it. The house is bustling with men (his brother—and regular cast member—Fabrice shows up with his three young sons) but the film is all about absent women. Curiously specific, L’Aimee doesn’t become the meditation on age and death and fatherhood and nostalgia that one might hope for; it feels very personal in a way that doesn’t become universal, or didn’t for me. But it is a fascinating film: full of unexpected touches (his grandmother’s letters are read over images of Lilian Gish in Night of the Hunter) and touching moments (his brother lingering in the hallway before leaving for good) not to mention a promising (to this viewer) opening rooftop shot of trees in the wind. Unclassifiable as documentary or fiction, the film’s very deliberate and perhaps staged mixture of personal narrative and patient observation, as well as its house and garden setting, reminded me most of all of another of the great films of the ’90s: Victor Erice’s Dream of Light. Now there’s another film we’re waiting for a follow-up to.