Updated: Mar 4
Memo from the cinema desk: two recommendations. In Un amour impossible (2018) Virginie Efira portrays a beautiful but unassuming office worker who falls in love with a man from a wealthy family, cultured, sophisticated, who turns out to be a monster with the intellectual pretensions of a sophomore who just discovered Nietzsche. Philippe is upfront from the beginning that he will not marry her. He wants to be free. Her pregnancy changes nothing. Maybe, he muses, if she were rich. Rachel harbors hope that he will change his mind about marriage but is more distressed by his refusal to acknowledge Chantal as his daughter.
Rachel as the victim of a nasty piece of work whose moral compass is fried beyond possibility of recalibration is one aspect of the story but only that. She is never merely a victim. Un amour impossible depicts the heroism of ordinary life as Rachel experiences disappointment, deep sorrow, bouts of depression when her relationship with her daughter founders, both women scarred by Philippe's abuse, psychical and sexual, yet she gets on with things, as people do. Making her way in life. Caring and making a home for the daughter she loves. When Chantal is a girl Rachel moves with her to another city and finds a job as assistant to the director of a mental hospital. Later she becomes a department director. The two of them are a family. She has talent, ability, and richness of spirit that lie beyond the comprehension of the nihilist Philippe. Her sense of right and wrong compels her to insist that Philippe recognize his daughter. She cannot articulate precisely why this matters so much. It is just wrong that Chantal should not have his name, that her birth certificate should say "father unknown."
At a café table some half a century after the opening episode in 1958 Chantal explains to her mother that her father's conduct was from the beginning a huge project of rejection. Philippe and Rachel belonged to two different worlds. She was alone, poor, Jewish—beautiful and different from others, that was important. The goal was social rejection, to make her lose, but she insisted that he recognize his daughter so she could have his name. So he ignored the taboo forbidding a father to have sex with his daughter, as if he were not her father and she not his daughter. His abuse of Chantal was an instrument to humiliate and shame Rachel as mother of a daughter whose father would do that.
Rachel takes it in. There is something to what Chantal says. It does not matter that she may tie the psychology and motivation together a little too neatly. Philippe is a monster whatever the psychopathology behind it all. (I trust that I do not give away too much by revealing that the monster comes to a fitting end, a measure of poetic justice.)
The film concludes with mother and daughter walking together along a bustling city street. There is no great, outward show of reconciliation, rather the unspoken sense that they have arrived at something of the same place and have one another again. Chantal narrates that a few days later her mother sent her an email with this quote: "Of the tortured feelings I felt in that distant time nothing remained. In this world where everything fades and perishes one thing falls into ruin and erases itself leaving even less of a trace than beauty and that is sorrow." The heroism of ordinary life.
Un amour impossible (An Impossible Love) (2018)
Dir. Catherine Corsini
Les invincibles (2013) is a comedy with a deftly executed feel-good ending that showcases another side of Efira in a prominent supporting role with Atmen Kelif and Gérard Depardieu, who could stand to drop a hundred pounds, maybe two, but is perfect as a former petanque champion gone to seed, in debt to local hoodlums, reduced to running scams with Momo Boldini (Kelif), a young man of no means—his mother runs a restaurant, father in Algeria—but with a remarkable gift for the game. Momo, Caroline (Efira), and Jackie (Depardieu) team together to foil the treachery of a sleazy promoter and a racist team captain and bring the international petanque championship to…Algeria.
A taste of Efira, who sports an array of very short dresses throughout the film: Two strutting peacocks who fancy themselves petanque studs, brought onto the team by the racist captain to reduce Momo's role to that of substitute, ogle Caroline while making crude cracks about her position and how she got it. She calmly informs them she has an M.A. in sports management, a second M.A., and, absolutely deadpan, by the way she has slept with half of top management and is working her way through the other half. As she turns to walk away with Momo, she adds, as if it only just that moment occurred to her, "I should wear panties with this outfit," leaving the pair of dolts slackjawed, gaping, outclassed beyond measure, maybe with an inkling that they have just been put down in impressive fashion, maybe not.
Les invincibles (2013)
Dir. Frédéric Berthe
Un amour impossible is one of six Virginie Efira films I have seen since May of last year when I happened by chance onto Victoria (also titled Sleeping with Victoria). Six films amount to little more than a snapshot of her career. Efira (b. Brussels, 1977) is an actress who seems to work all the time, routinely appearing in three or four films a year.
Efira never does too much. She has a gift for conveying feeling, emotion, depths with facial expression and demeanor, though she is also quite capable of chewing some scenery when that is called for. She appears to be effortlessly just playing herself even when the selves are as wildly different as Rachel and Caroline. The same holds for her performances in Victoria, Night Shift (an intense cop drama), Sibyl, and Le goût des merveilles (The Sense of Wonder), which remains my favorite thus far. Un amour impossible, viewed more recently, is right up there and, as with the best films, I find myself drawn more and more into it as I reflect afterward. It gets better.
Memo from the editorial Desk: Mini reviews of Sleeping with Victoria, Night Shift, and Le goût des merveilles appear in the Portable Bohemia newsletter June 1, 2022.