As the debate continue to rage about the place – or rather, the lack thereof – of female directors in Hollywood, the trend seems to be little different at the Croisette; in Cannes’ coveted In Competition bracket, of the 21 films screening, only a single one, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi‘s A Castle in Italy, is directed by a female. This has already earned it plenty of pre-buzz as a dark horse for the Palme D’Or, and while Bruni Tedeschi, who also stars in the leading role, may well be a top contender for the Best Actress award, the film itself is likely too milquetoast to catch the allure of jury head Steven Spielberg.
Louise (Bruni Tedeschi) is a middle-aged actress who is taking some time out from acting to take care of herself, at which point the news arrives that the luxurious mansion she and the other family members maintain may have to be liquidated or sold on to settle sizeable tax fees. Louise also has to deal with a brother, Ludovic (Filippo Timi) suffering from AIDS, and Nathan (Louis Garrel), a young suitor who persistently pursues the actress across Paris; one scenario can indicate only impending death, while the other might signify the arrival of a new life if Louise gets her way.
A Castle in Italy is wryly, dryly funny, and sure to be remembered as something of a divisive acquired taste. While it begins by examining the destabilisation of an upper-class family base, it soon enough splinters off into some unexpected directions, some of which are then peculiarly almost never adressed again. Most disquietingly, a former incestual relationship between Louise and her brother is heavily implied early on, and then the thread is simply abandoned.
Though this lurid flavour helps the film somewhat defy the standard categorisation – which it adamantly needs to do – there’s little questioning the fact that this is a rich people problems movie, at least at first, until the family learns of their insolvency, and the prospect of selling their luxurious family mansion is received with universal horror. More agreeably, it eventually leaps off to examine middle-age ennui, a mid-term longing for life – and, ostensibly, for a child – that Louise feels, much to the chagrin of her young lover.
It’s handsomely mounted in terms of both its attractive brother-sister-lover trio and its regal cinematography. Bruni Tedeschi is a particularly startling presence in the lead role, and may very well walk away with the festival’s Best Actress prize to that effect; it is a textbook example of an actor overcoming the material put before them and completely dominating the screen. Dishevelled and almost perenially in crisis – even when it seems like she’s not – we are always able to see the cogs of Louise’s psyche turning, and it makes potentially dry material a far more enticing experience.
As for the characters on the whole, actual investment isn’t particularly strong, even as Ludovic wastes away from his illness before our very eyes. The central relationship is as close as we get to caring, but given how hysterical Louise tends to be, it is more a source of amusement than visceral engagement, or better yet, catharsis. Though for a so-called art-house flick there’s a surprising amount of silly humor – notably an episode in which Louise sneaks into a local church to sit on a blessed fertility chair – sometimes the writer/director/actress goes too far, notably with a sperm-related exchange that distends itself well past the point of being funny. Allegorising their for-sale home with the destruction of the family unit, also, is a lazy link that makes the film’s final moments seem rather pat and underwhelming.
This is a film slight enough that it has probably priced itself out of the Palme D’Or, though it was met with considerable laughter and applause at this afternoon’s press screening. Some unexpectedly dark humor accompanies the unsettling inferences early on to give A Castle in Italy just the amount of idiosyncracy and edginess needed to distinguish itself in a crowded field.
The Upside: Bruni Tedeschi’s performance is the gemstone of the piece, elevating it considerably, as does the evocative cinematography and witty humor.
The Downside: It struggles to find its rhythm early on, and will naturally turn many off with its priveliged, not particularly likeable protagonists.
On the Side: The film is reportedly semi-autobiographical, drawing from Bruni Tedeschi’s real-life brother afflicted with AIDS, and countless other plot points.