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Friday, Aug. 29, 2008
'Je m'appelle Elisabeth'
Spirited away . . . not quite
By KAORI SHOJI
One of the outstanding things about the life of Elisabeth (age 10), aka "Betty" in "Je m'appelle Elisabeth" (International Title: "Call Me Elizabeth") is the vast amount of time she has to go for long, solitary bike rides, discover and investigate the ruins of an old house, and tell herself stories at night under the covers. The story is set in 1960 in the French countryside, and there's no TV, videogames, play dates or cell phones to intrude on her daily routines. In the morning Betty makes her own toast and gets coffee for her dad (Stephane Freiss), then packs her bookbag and bicycles off to school.
In the evenings she has dinner with her parents or the housemaid Rose (Yolande Moreau) and spends the hours before bed roaming the corridors of her huge, silent house, creaky with age and full of mysterious dark corners.
A modern-day child would probably scream with boredom in the first 10 minutes of Betty's day, but between director Jean-Pierre Ameris and screenwriter Guillaume Laurant (of "Amelie" fame), they show the rich density of Betty's inner life in the fantasies and stories she invents to fuel her imagination and boost her morale when she has a bad day at school. In many ways, Betty is a sad child. Her mom (Maria de Medeiros) is having an affair and is rarely home in the afternoons; her dad is the director of a mental institution situated right next door and is often stressed; and her older sister and sole comrade, Agnes (Lauriane Sire), has gone to boarding school. Rose is one of her father's patients and suffers from amnesia triggered by an extreme trauma. Betty seemingly takes all this in stride, but at night her anxieties rise up ghostlike, to give her nightmares.
Director Ameris has professed in interviews that though "Je m'appelle" is based on the novel by Anne Wiazemsky, much of the film was inspired by "Spirited Away," the blockbuster anime by Hayao Miyazaki. Indeed, fans will recognize some factors of 10-year-old Chihiro — who unwittingly wanders into a fantasy land and struggles to find herself — in Betty (excellently played by Alba Gaia Kreghedge Bellugi): the lack of real communication (and subsequent misunderstanding) with her parents, the wish to get close to them and help out in some way, the vague feeling that she's superfluous in the household. The similarities however, peter out as "Je m'appelle" becomes little more than a charming coming-of-age tale while "Spirited Away" puts Chihiro through ordeals and prepares her for battle. The big difference is the issue of labor — Chihiro must work to prove her worth and survive; Betty (while it's true she does more than the average 10-year-old of today) basically remains protected and privileged, a poignant creature prettily suspended between childhood and adolescence, almost but not quite aware of her ennui.
Betty, however, rapidly takes control when one of the inmates escapes from her father's institution to seek temporary shelter in the garden shed. Yvon (Benjamin Ramon) is young and handsome, radiating a French rock-musician cool, even when in his distraught state and striped, institutional pajamas. Betty carries him food and blankets and decides when he can step outside to relieve himself; in her enthusiasm and inexperience she treats him like a lovable stray dog, lording over him like a benevolent mistress. Fortunately for her, Yvon is grateful to his benefactress and does everything she says. It would have been interesting to see more of Yvon's personality and why he was committed to the hospital in the first place (the dialogue briefly indicates that he stabbed his mother), but he appears only as Betty's faithful companion, ready to do her bidding and be rewarded with a bowl of cafe au lait. Had Ameris developed their relationship further, the movie would have changed in tone and color, perhaps hurling the pair toward a predicament neither of them wanted or was ready for.
The story repeatedly veers away from precipices that Betty, in a sort of innocent wisdom, knows to avoid. Betty's mom for example, looks positively vampiric in black evening gowns and frighteningly red lipstick; her long absences punctuated by tantrum bursts seem to suck the life away from her dad, who grows wan and morose with each passing day. Rose is also a scary presence, always appearing to know everything and only pretending to be mad. What's really going on?
We never find out because Ameris handles Betty with a delicacy reminiscent of French lace. His is one way to depict girlhood, but in the spirit of "Spirited Away," a big part of being a girl is to experience the rigors of living and to come out empowered for what lies ahead.