The vapid melodrama of Nicole Garcia’s From the Land of the Moon suggests an accidental parody of the beautiful suffering that’s often infused the work of its star, Marion Cotillard. Gabrielle (Cotillard) is a 1950s-era woman in the south of France with an appetite for unattainable men and a propensity for violent outbursts and cramps. The setting is a small community in the country, and we’re meant to see that Gabrielle is so passionate and emotionally hungry that horniness is driving her insane.
Seeking to head a blossoming problem off at the pass, Gabrielle’s mother, Adèle (Brigitte Roüan), presents her daughter with an ultimatum: Randomly marry José (Alex Brendemühl), a building contractor, or be sent to an asylum. Gabrielle doesn’t know José or have feelings for him, but they wed and forge the kind of boringly functional relationship that, in cinema, always sends a woman into a tortured hunk’s arms. In this case, Gabrielle instantly falls crazy in love with André (Louis Garrel), a veteran of the Indochinese war whom she meets in a spa in the Alps while undergoing treatment for kidney stones.
Throughout these developments, which Garcia dramatizes at a funereal pace that’s intended to connote profound, ages-spanning longing, we’re given no reason to find Gabrielle compelling, aside from the fact that she’s played by an international icon. Gabrielle is defined by her sexual frustration, tenuous relationship with reality, and her cruelty and self-absorption, having no occupation, interests, opinions, friends, or desires apart from fixations on strangers. It could be argued that Gabrielle’s shallowness is intended as a comment on the limited options available to women at the time, except the film’s reduction of her to an irrational housewife is nearly as sexist.
From the Land of the Moon is in love with the idea of love as a self-justifying catchall divorced of all context—the sort of love that’s popular in young adult novels and loses its luster for rational and experienced people sometime not long after high school. If a harlequin melodrama is to wrap us up in its fevered self-pity, it must have an intoxicating subjectivity, conjuring a passion so vivid that it authentically eclipses conventional concerns. If Cotillard and Garrel don’t have that kind of chemistry it’s because Garcia doesn’t allow them to develop it, as the filmmaker’s plodding direction seals these stereotypes up in their own respective corner of the frame.
The film is so humorless and in love with its own obviousness that it grows laughable. It’s already a stretch to ask the audience to believe the 41-year-old Cotillard in a role that’s clearly intended for a teenager, and Gabrielle’s histrionics increasingly strain a credibility that’s shattered by a ludicrous twist. (Spoilers herein.) Near the end of From the Land of the Moon, Gabrielle is shown to be posing in a picture by herself that she once imagined to include André, revealing that Gabrielle isn’t impetuous but authentically delusional—a nonsensical howler that might’ve been heartbreaking if the narrative and behavioral groundwork had been competently laid.
If Garcia had understood that Gabrielle was essentially a ghost, hollowed out by entitled naïveté or neurosis and estranged from humankind, then From the Land of the Moon might have a point. But the filmmaker appears to believe that Gabrielle is an un-ironically tragic heroine with a possibility for redemption, and her misguidance encourages Cotillard to give the most insufferably mono-tonal performance of her career.