Sunday, June 17, 2007

Review of Olivier, Olivier

“Olivier, Olivier” (1992) is a film I first saw for class my freshman year of college. I’m not sure how or when I would have seen it otherwise. Professor William Paul chose the film as an example of magic realism (see also, “Time of the Gypsies” for another good illustration) and he clearly enjoyed the film personally. Few others in the class agreed, although the emotional response to the film was immense (some of the students started weeping in the theater) and it struck a personal chord, quickly becoming one of my first obscure favorites. The film has yet to see a DVD release, but when I discovered a VHS copy at my local public library, I had to give the film another viewing to see whether it still held the same power over me.

I can fairly say it does. The film reminds me of “Possession” (1981) and “Picnic at Hanging Rock” (1975) in its raw intensity, psycho-sexual undertones and art-house strangeness. It begins as a typical family drama and pours a solid foundation of realism, credibility and quiet beauty upon which to erect the unexpected story. Nadine and Olivier are sister and brother, youngsters who play in the fields surrounding their bucolic estate outside Paris. Their mother, Elisabeth Duval, is more than slightly neurotic. She dotes on Olivier with a maternal passion bordering on incest and makes her favoritism overt enough to enflame Nadine. When Olivier suffers from a nightmare and wants to sleep in his mother’s bed (interrupting the parents during sex), the hot-tempered father, Serge, angrily suggests that his wife’s constant pampering will turn their son into a homosexual.

One day, while Nadine is building a citadel out of eggs in the attic (one of the first clues about the weirdness lying in wait and the symbolism charging the entire film), Olivier is given a lunch basket to take to his ailing grandmother who lives nearby. He gets on his bike to deliver the meal and never returns. Neighbors can provide no clues. Search parties find no trace. Devastated by the loss of her child, Elisabeth flies into fits of rage, depression and madness. Nadine, neglected and full of misguided guilt, becomes withdrawn. Serge accepts a job in Africa and leaves the family as a thinly-veiled escape from the emotional upheaval. Even the chief inspector on the case, Druot, accepts a position in Paris to avoid the shame and awkwardness of his unsuccessful investigation.

Six years pass. Druot picks up a homosexual teen prostitute working in a bathroom and immediately suspects that he may be, in fact, the long lost Olivier. When he correctly answers questions about his family, Druot reunites him with Elisabeth who instantly senses that he is the genuine article. Serge returns home, monkey in tow, and immediately befriends the son despite his suspicions and the boy’s strange reticence. Only Nadine resists the idea that this stranger is her brother.

In the revelatory second half “Olivier, Olivier” reveals itself to be a masterpiece of foreshadowing. Everything from the opening scene of two children harmlessly playing in the overexposed noonday sun to the sexual pulse beating beneath the family’s ordinary skin to a brief dialogue about Olivier’s birth to the fairy tale references (Olivier’s red cap [hood] is integrated perfectly) come back to haunt us with new meanings and unseen dimensions as the story unfolds. Almost every detail serves double duty as dark hints of the events to come as well as the usual narrative progression and character background. Unlike a film like Shyamalan’s “Signs” (2002) that contrives things so grotesquely that it draws attention solely to its overemphasized ending, “Olivier, Olivier” makes both layers work naturally and simultaneously. The interpretation and retrospective contemplation is left for the audience.

Perhaps the most effective portent is the very mood and atmosphere of the film. Even during the relatively cheerful narrative groundwork, an unbearable tension hangs in the air of the Duval home. The composer, Zbigniew Preisner (most famous for scoring Keislowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy), provides primarily a single piano piece. The track is elegantly simple and builds the mood from the slight sensation of melancholy, like a cloud passing across the sun, to the powerful invocation of a dread nightmare. The repeating chords resonate into the film’s devastating final image and remain with the viewer long afterwards.

More subtle than the psyche-tapping music is the careful lighting and editing. Bright daylight belies a sudden disappearance, dusty window-lit rooms bear an unsettling hybrid of haunted house and romantic imagery, dusk/dawn shades suffuse interiors with an uncomfortable sexual energy and darkness conceals shames and secrets with complicit glee. Isabelle Lorente’s sharp-eyed editing holds on faces for a second or two longer than we expect, capturing little flecks of nuance and making everyone seem somehow awkwardly imposed upon the viewer. Her juxtaposition of events adds extra spice to the possible meanings and extra impact to the individual shots without even resorting to high-contrast cuts or fancy camera tricks.

Agnieszka Holland (from Poland, but working in France) directs the predominantly female production team (this film is, incidentally, my favorite by a female director) and clearly get exactly what she wants from every scene. Tiny idiosyncrasies abound that a lesser director would never have conceived or, having considered the idea, rejected. Certainly many critics found the twinges of strangeness difficult to justify or interpret and few but hardcore magic realism enthusiasts hailed the film as imaginatively ahead of its time. The aforementioned egg-pyramid is one such oddity, but other conspicuous examples include a subsequent act of self-mutilation, the addition of a trained monkey into the cast, an eerie hallucination (witnessed by no one except the audience), a brief foray into science fiction that has nearly no narrative need and a pan across an abstractly close-up naked body under disturbing circumstances. To cap things off, the ending seems to present contradictory information, solving mysteries in a way that only makes the truth more illusive.

The cast, particularly the core family, is exceedingly well assembled and conducted. Grégoire Colin, as the prodigal son, brings a lanky caginess that charms, alienates, seduces and annoys all at once. His smiley (one might say too smiley) performance doesn’t quite cover his mysterious missing years on the harsh streets or his obvious experience as a prostitute, hustler and thief. Marina Golovine, as Nadine, is all pent-up hostility and sexuality masked behind an icy glare and an implication of hard-earned maturity in a broken home. Brigitte Rouan delivers the only depiction of a bereaved mother more emotionally high-strung and intensely dramatized than Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie) in “Twin Peaks” (1990-1991). Serge, played by Francois Cluzet, is perhaps the dimmest luminary in the lot, but still channels the disgruntled frustration and stress of the short-fused alpha-male father with exacting vividness.

Sadly, it seems that fate, and the taste of those endless millions who aren’t me, have deprived “Olivier, Olivier” of even a cult status. Holland’s previous film, “Europa, Europa” (1991) pales in comparison, but became an instant critical darling and international box office success. To my mind, it’s “Olivier” that boldly breaks new ground, taking a premise out of the headlines and into the imagination, where it can lurk amongst the subconscious and play games with our frontal lobe. Hopefully this film will one day get the DVD release it deserves.

Walrus Rating: 10


Unknown said...

It's surprising that it hasn't gotten a DVD release, yet, I think. I bet when it does, though, it'll be Criterion.

It was interesting to see it in the situation I did. You told me about it in such detail (especially because of its rarity/obscurity) when you first saw it, and I remembered bits of that as we watched it again. A bit of a strange feeling, knowing some of what will happen in such an otherwise not very predictable plot.

At any rate, a fine film. I would love to own it when that's possible.

Mad Dog said...

Man. Now I want to see it. :(

FilmWalrus said...

Do look around at libraries. The VHS release was pretty prominant on the art and education circuit. COnsidering your love of "Possession," I think you'd like this one. It isn't as completely crazy, but it has the sheer intensity.

Patti said...

Yeah, this was pretty high on the intense list.

I think the director really like repeated titles.

Molly said...

I remember those mixed reactions, too. People leaving with their mouths hanging open wondering why Prof. Paul had to show us that.

Frankly, I loved it, and I'm happy to see you give it the praise it deserves.