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Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2002

Women on the verge -- again and again

La Repetition

Rating: * * *
Director: Catherine Corsini
Running time: 96 minutes
Language: French
Now showing

When women get too close, they tend to destroy each other. This has been the premise of many films ("Single White Female," "Interiors," "Mina Tannenbaum," etc.) that explore the dynamics of female relationships, a fact that leaves one depressed but fascinated. Women's friendships are far more passionate and consuming than men's (at least as depicted onscreen), so absorbing that they often need no other characters. They love, they envy, they harm and rescue each other, and they alternate between emotional concealment and uninhibited revelation. Why are women and the relationships between them so complex, or more to the point, why do directors insist on depicting them as such?

News photo
Emmanuelle Beart in "La Repetition"

French director Catherine Corsini attempts to solve the mystery in her film "La Repetition" but, like so many predecessors, she merely succeeds in displaying the complexities, albeit with much skill and style.

Corsini, who has also co-authored the screenplay, gets off on the wrong foot by going for the obvious female fireworks combo: a glamorous, charismatic stage actress Nathalie (Emmanuelle Beart) and the less successful dental assistant Louise (Pascale Bussieres). Best friends since childhood, Louise and Nathalie have shared everything -- even stage-role opportunities at their local drama club.

In their senior year in college, Louise becomes frustrated by Nathalie's ability to conquer an audience, both on and off the stage. She attempts suicide and then makes a complete break with her friend and the stage. Ten years later, they meet again -- at the theater where Nathalie is now playing the lead in a big play.

At first, they return to their old camaraderie, but soon, sparks begin to fly. Eventually Louise shows herself to be both convenient doormat and control freak, while Nathalie displays a mean and capricious streak.

Corsini isn't taking us anywhere we haven't been before (isn't that right, girls?), but the performances of Beart and Bussieres are personal and nuanced enough to pull the story along and get us involved in their heated onscreen conflict. Of the pair, Bussieres has the more difficult role of admiring/hating her best friend and, at the same time, pining to be her. Louise entrenches herself in Nathalie's career, more in the manner of a stage mom than a friend who's there to offer support.

When famous Parisian director Walthar (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) approaches Nathalie, at first she brushes him off in loyalty to her director-boyfriend Matthieu (Dani Levy). But Louise decides that Nathalie should be more ambitious. She sets up a meeting with Walthar on her own and pushes Nathalie to work with him. Nathalie, on the other hand, feels suffocated by Louise's attentions and bluntly tells her to leave. When Louise does so, she immediately regrets it and calls her back, telling her that she can't function without "someone who truly understands me."

And so the scales keep tipping one way or the other until they're both tired out. What Nathalie really needs, of course, is an audience to admire and love her unconditionally while Louise is looking to fill the hole that opened once she ditched her dream of becoming an actress. At one point, the pair's symbiosis reaches a high fever and they have a semi-sexual encounter, more to let off steam than out of real physical necessity.

The next day, though, their reactions to the incident are different and instructive: Louise is so enthralled that she books a holiday in Rome for the two of them; Nathalie suddenly cools off, pretending it never happened. Though this hurts Louise, she simply assumes Nathalie is (happily) embarrassed and forges ahead with her plans. Nathalie reluctantly agrees to go, then on the way to the airport, she orders their taxi to return to Paris.

With things between them being so high-maintenance, Nathalie and Louise don't have the time for any outside interests, namely men. Especially deserving of our sympathy is Louise's husband (Sami Bouajila), whose marital role is a thoroughly thankless. He initially puts up with her long absences from home and work, then is told point-blank that she wants out of the marriage so she can be near Nathalie. He can't understand their friendship, he says, and it will probably confuse a lot of men as well.

Most compelling is the scene of the pair together in the bathtub, Nathalie's leg draped over Louise's shoulder as she covers it with soap, and Nathalie talking the whole time about how her own body is no longer beautiful, how the validation date for women runs to age 30 and, after that, she says with a sigh, "there's nothing left for her but bearing children." Of course, all this is incredibly seductive, even for (presumably) straight women like Louise who looks at Nathalie with an intense, tortured gaze.

In "La Repetition," girls definitely have more fun.

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