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Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2002

Taking in the bad with the good

Martha . . . Martha

Rating: * * * * 1/2
Director: Sandrine Veysset
Running time: 97* minutes
Language: French
Now showing

"It seems that no matter what, I'm drawn to characters with some sort of tragic destiny. Even if they experience happiness, there's something hard in store for them. I guess I'm saying we all have times of happiness and of sadness, but for me, I could never make a film that's purely happy. . . . There's no poetry in being happy all the time."

News photo
Valerie Donzelli and Yann Goven in "Martha . . . Martha"

That's how French director Sandrine Veysset summed up her films, as we spoke over coffee last year, the day after her latest work, "Martha . . . Martha" had been shown at the Yokohama French Film Festival. It was clear from her words -- and from her film, which she scripted herself -- that Veysset hasn't had an easy life. Hers is a world-view you either know or you don't. For those who've had their share of knocks, you can never enjoy a moment of light without seeing the shadow beyond it.

Veysset's films are incredibly moving portraits of joy etched in despair. In the interview, Veysset mentioned Rimbaud as an reference point; I would offer Kerouac. But her films are, in their own way, as powerful as anything those two ever penned.

"Martha . . . Martha" is a superbly drawn portrait of a family struggling to make things work. Valerie Donzelli and Yann Goven play a young couple named Martha and Reymond, with a 6-year-old daughter named Lise (Lucie Regnier). They eke out a living selling secondhand clothes, schlepping around to flea markets in a beat-up old van, but there's a lot of affection in the family to make up for lack of material wealth. Reymond loves Martha, and Lise adores her mom, but Martha -- and here is the film's great paradox -- both loves them and doesn't.

What Veysset is getting at is a topic rarely broached in film, but increasingly common these days: the difficulty of a young woman to accept the responsibility and routine of motherhood and give up the freer, wilder, more sexual identity she had before. (Not to say that men don't have their own commitment problems too.)

While Reymond dutifully keeps the household running -- taking care of business, or picking up Lise at school -- Martha is off drinking from noon or disappearing for nights out on the town. Lise reacts to all this by being a "little angel," which, no doubt, only increases Martha's feelings of her own worthlessness, thus sending her back to the bottle.

If Martha were like this all the time, it would be easy to dislike her, but it's clear, when she's on her "up" arc, that she could be happy, if she could only decide what it is she wants. She shines when she's with Lise and melts into Reymond's arms . . . only to resent the two of them as burdens when her mood shifts.

Manic-depression? Perhaps. But Martha had a brother who died young, a sister who hates her and parents who were exceptionally cold. Like so many from messed-up households, Martha wants to give her own kid the love she never had but also fears she's so damaged psychically that she'll never be a good parent.

Veysset drops us into their lives and, within 15 minutes, you'll have forgotten you're watching a piece of fiction. The cast spent three weeks living together prior to the shoot (in character) and it shows. Or rather, it doesn't. The actors here -- unknowns till now -- disappear into their roles so fully, there's not a trace of artifice. The emotions ring honest and true, and I cannot recall any other film that has captured this well the affection and tenderness, fights and reconciliation between a couple. (Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in "Don't Look Now," perhaps.)

Goven plays Reymond like the hubby from heaven: he works, he cooks, he cleans, he cuddles, he takes care of the kid. And all with a quiet, uncomplaining efficiency. But you sense a quiet desperation behind his iron will, the feeling that he's repressing everything to create this total calm to balance Martha's tempestuousness. For him, Martha is everything, and the one scene where he breaks down -- when Lise can't see him -- is truly moving.

Regnier is a revelation as Lise. It is the best performance by a child actress imaginable. She's got a sad, quizzical little face, which can ease into a smile that can break your heart. You can see why Martha won't leave her. Her scenes with the older actors seem perfectly natural; how she handled the more intense scenes, in which Martha freaks out, I can't imagine. (Maybe the biggest tribute to her is that both director and lead actress were inspired to get pregnant and have their own kids within months of finishing the film.)

Finally, there's Donzelli, who gives a fascinating, deeply felt performance, expressing so many levels of love, doubt, frustration and self-loathing. Imagine a more real-world version of Beatrice Dalle in "Betty Blue" and you'd be getting close; Donzelli is just as emotionally raw. There are times, when she flirts with her sister's husband, or stands by motionless as Lise falls into a pond, where you'll just want to grab her and shake her back into reality. Then there are others, when -- like Reymond -- you'll just be praying she can get her head together. Ultimately, these characters deserve their little piece of happiness, but, Veysset being Veysset, it's doomed to be fleeting.

"Martha . . . Martha" may be a small film, but it's a major work. Like Eric Zonca's "The Dreamlife of Angels" or "Rosetta," it paints a portrait of a rootless generation, for whom traditional family and career paths have failed. There's no "message" here, though; for Veysset, the mysteries of the human heart are everything.

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