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Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2004
Dancing to the end of the line
By KAORI SHOJI
Great dancers don't necessarily make great actors, but in the case of Marie-Claude Pietragalla, one of France's best-loved ballerinas, she acts the way she dances: with an enviable naturalness allied to precise, crystalline technique.
In "Quand je vois le soleil" (released in Japan as "La Pietra"), which marks her screen-acting debut, Pietragalla's every movement speaks of the gravity-defying grace of the born dancer -- while also showcasing the studied depth and range of her dramatic expression. She can deploy a single gaze, a simple gesture -- the tossing off of a mere word -- to shift and change the whole ambience of the scene. The camera, when locked on her (or "La Pietra" as she's called in France), seems unable to tear itself away, and you can actually feel the reluctance with which it moves to focus on other things.
On stage, Pietragalla's ability to mesmerize an audience into utter, stupefied fascination is legendary; on celluloid the magic is replicated, and then expanded.
"Quand je vois le soleil" is director Jacques Cortal's tribute to La Pietra and her incredible dedication to her art. At first glance though, the storyline is borderline soap-and-sentiment (a renowned ballerina discovers she has cancer, but is determined to keep dancing till the end, supported by her loving husband. Boohoo). Two things rescue it from turning into a French-ballet MTV: these are that it is based on Cortal's experiences with his wife who died of cancer, and the fact that "Quand e . . . " is also about a complex and tragically romantic marriage.
Cortal's screenplay is always brazenly honest: after the couple learn of the wife's terminal illness and are trying to deal with the news, the husband voices his anger and frustration that they haven't made love in a while, and now will probably find it increasingly difficult. Later, the wife urges him into a liaison with a prostitute (of her choosing), and he agrees. For them, love and passion defined their relationship, and they wanted to keep it that way whatever the means.
This mind set is, perhaps, very French -- but it's also very classical ballet ("Swan Lake," "Giselle"): just the environment for La Pietra.
Pietragalla plays Margot, a renowned ballet dancer living happily with her husband Raphael (Florent Pagny), a comic-book artist, and their small daughter. All is shattered, though, when the couple learn of her incurable cancer.
However, Margot's fear of the disease wrecking her perfect dancer's body overrides her fear of death. She decides to forego all treatment in order to keep dancing, and to maintain the intensity of her relationship with Raphael. This manifests itself in various ways: Margot sends her daughter off to her in-laws' house so she and he can concentrate on love and art. She works at her dancing with a frenzied dedication. She urges Raphael to have one-night stands, and when he does she has fits of rage.
Thus, she spins the dials on her emotions, art and sensuality (by proxy), trying to squeeze the last drops of life and passion out of the little time she has left.
Even as she deteriorates and is confined to bed, Raphael and Margot still talk about love and sex and jealousy, a nexus of subjects that's all-important for them.
Being a man and a woman meant more to them than being, say, parents, and when Margot could no longer dance, it meant more to them than art. Till the end, Margot insisted on spraying herself with her favorite perfume and enveloping herself in silk negligees. Neither Margot nor Raphael have any interest in prolonging her life once she can no longer dance or have discussions about their love.
At the same time, Raphael is desperate and confused and he embarks on an affair with a woman even though he knows how much Margot will be hurt by a lasting, more serious liaison. He never apologizes or attempts to explain himself though, and he goes from heated sexual encounters in a hotel room back to Margot's sickbed, to massage her aching limbs, coax her to eat little spoonfuls of yogurt, and then to assist her pained, shaky forays to the toilet. Neither of them ever complain about her condition, or even talk about it all that much. When she does speak about impending death, she says things like: "Open the curtains, will you? When I look at the sun I feel a little more alive."
In spite of it being a "cancer movie," "Quand je vois le soleil" doesn't induce any tears; mere sympathy (or sadness) just doesn't match up to a woman with such an undiluted passion for life -- and one so loyal to her own definition of what that life should be about.