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Woman's Revenge, A
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by Jay Seaver

"I promise, something actually does happen an hour and a half or so in."
2 stars

Actors love shit like this. At least, a certain type does. They receive a long screenplay that's almost all dialogue, between just a few a characters, with obviously complicated backstory and a contentious relationship beneath the civility, and they're like, oh, wow, this is my chance to look GOOD. And the type of actor who is attracted to this sort of project - they generally can pull it off. Here's my question, though: Is a film packed to the rafters with fine and subtle acting but little else have any more value than any other type of unbalanced film? Is this really better than a gimmick screenplay or two hours of empty eye candy?

I tend to think not. I think that in part as a reaction to people touting performance-heavy pieces which bored me over flashier movies that provided real entertainment, no matter how simple. I understand the feeling; of all the pieces that go into a movie, the acting is the most human. If how Isabelle Huppert says a word makes you cry, she does it without mechanical or electronic tools. It's an accomplishment that can't be denigrated or explained away. We want it to be most important, because we can see people doing it. But even when it is the most important thing, it can't be the only thing. And as fine a showcase as La Vengence d'une Femme is for its two leading actresses, it's not much more than that.

The first actress is Beatrice Dalle, playing Suzy. Suzy is young, pretty, and not apparently rooted to any place or job. She was, of course, someone's mistress. He's dead now, but his widow isn't. Cecile, the widow, is played by Isabelle Huppert, and she shows up at Suzy's hotel - the one where she would meet Cecile's husband - to confront her. Since this is France, they are civil, and Cecile even asks for Suzy's help in dealing with her late husband's apartment. As the film goes on, though, the two grow more hostile, acting as though the other is still a threat, even though the reason for contention is gone.

Big drama can - and often does - come from small stakes; consider the aphorism that academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small. The trouble here is that we're never given an interesting background for the pettiness or any real sense of mystery. This conflict may be important to them, but it's only important to us because of how it affects them. Since all we know about them is that they are in this situation, it's a situation where the movie's chasing its own tail. If we don't find the idea of a woman confronting her husband's mistress after his death intriguing on its own, then all we have to fall back on is the quality of the performances.

And they are very good, even if good performances don't make interesting characters on their own. Isabelle Huppert plays Cecile as tightly wound, initially too sophisticated and worldly to show her hurt, but later appearing to break down, quietly lashing out in ways that seem irrational. Beatrice Dalle seems more sympathetic; as short-sighted and egocentric as she is, she doesn't seem to wish anybody ill. In many ways she's a blank slate, too young to have absorbed the lessons that life has taught Cecile.

Director Jacques Doillon shares "scenarios et dialogues" credit with Jean-François Goyet, inspired by Dostoyevsky's story "The Eternal Husband". Those two far outweigh the action, to the point where I found myself grateful to see a little subtlety fall away to make it obvious one character is engaging in mind games. When that character produces a gun in the last act, I practically cheered; that threat of violence was the first thing to upgrade the atmosphere from "uncomfortable" to "tense".

Of course, I sort of have to wonder if producing that gun was some sort of repudiation of the film's principles. As much as such a pure acting exhibition may have bored me, does the person who goes for that find such a resolution tacky?

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originally posted: 02/09/06 05:37:08
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