Christophe Honoré has a remarkable sense of movement. Though his camera rarely moves, his compositions seethe with emotional and physical exuberance. At the start of his new film, Making Plans for Lena, the filmmaker voluptuously reflects his main character’s perpetual sense of anxiety in his explosive use of space. From a mall jam-packed with people who seemingly exist for no other reason than to stand in the way of her comfort and the safety of her two young children, Lena (Chiara Mastroianni) emerges, like Jessica Harper’s Suzy at the start of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, as if in a spell—on the brink of tripping and falling through a rabbit hole.
Perhaps influenced by Argento and Catherine Breillat, Honoré refracts Lena’s anxieties through a fairy-tale prism. It’s in the way Lena’s brother Gulven (Julien Honoré) holds a cute dog in his hand as he smooches his girlfriend, and in the secretiveness with which her father breaks the fourth wall by informing us of details from his daughter’s recent past; even the way a family is glimpsed enjoying each other’s company on the cover of a board game suggests something strange and mythic. Honoré‘s profound depth of field is almost suffocating, his colors are voluptuously saturated, his fixation on cherubic faces and critters is highly symbolic, and his contemplation of landscape is blissfully existential. It’s a fetchingly eccentric vision that speaks to both Honoré and his characters’ bewitched view of life.
The story, concerning Lena fleeing her “Yank” husband (Jean-Marc Barr) for her parents’ country cottage, may be a trifle, but it becomes remarkable through Honoré‘s vibrant aesthetic and rich sense of detail. Gulven strips and hugs Lena in a scene that amusingly addresses the lengths siblings will go to in order to express their comfort with each other’s sex and sense of boundaries, and in Lena and her sister Frédérique’s (Marina Foïs) irrational contempt for Gulven’s kooky girlfriend we understand the sisters not so much as petty, hypocritical women, but as sad creatures incapable of allowing themselves the simple pleasures of life. In such scenes, Making Plans for Lena becomes a more resonant, less self-conscious view of family dynamics than Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale.
But Honoré commits a colossal misstep. When Lena’s son, Anton (Donatien Suner), insists on telling her a story about a woman from some distant past who dances potential suitors to death before she herself dies after a man finally appears who can keep up with her, Honoré visually stages the story for the audience in what becomes an epic digression that gratuitously acknowledges the filmmaker’s fixation with myth and too bluntly draws comparisons between Lena and the woman in Anton’s story. The film eventually returns to real life, following Lena’s troubles with her men and children some months later, but by then the story has been completely sapped of its immediacy, the ethereal and suggestive giving way to the literal and scatterbrained.
With Téchiné-like expertise, Honoré delicately weaves together the dramas of his characters’ lives. Though those dramas aren’t always interesting (one could even say the character of Frédérique is completely beside the point), Making Plans for Lena is a gorgeous tapestry nonetheless. When Lena’s parents travel to Rome, we learn, in addition to their love of sex, travel, and the people, young and old, that mill about in their periphery, that the father may be dying. But that plot point is left unresolved after the epic, spell-breaking fuck-up of Honoré‘s fairy-tale digression. Once we’ve flashed forward, Mastroianni magisterially keeps the film’s energy alive, her character still raging against everyone around her for making the decisions she’s unable to, and though the final decision she makes is as sensible as it is haunting, you can’t help but feel that, by then, Honoré has adopted her self-absorbed point of view by leaving every other character, like us, completely hanging.