After completing A Gorgeous Girl Like Me in 1972, François Truffaut contemplated directing a new script by writer Jean Gruault, but passed on it in favor of pursuing Day for Night. Forty years later, writer-director Valérie Donzelli has rewritten Gruault’s original script and made it herself with Marguerite & Julien, a bizarro fairy tale-cum-realist drama inspired by a real story—as one of the film’s intertitles assures—of an aristocratic brother and sister who fell in love in 17th-century France and were subsequently persecuted and beheaded on grounds of incest and adultery. Additionally, Donzelli frames the story as a tale being told in the present to a dormitory of rambunctious schoolgirls, whose nighttime mocking of sex noises prompts a tale of forbidden love with dire consequences.
The frame narrative invites some order of comparisons between past and present, but once in the past, Donzelli largely stays there, with blankly placed homages to Truffaut and silent cinema interspersed through, like the iris-ins and -outs of several scenes. These are mere affectations for a dreary succession of events that place teenage Marguerite (Anaïs Demoustier) and Julien (Jérémie Elkaïm) in constant embrace, uttering phrases like “our love is a curse,” while Nick Cave’s score from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is borrowed for this film’s soundtrack. When the couple flees persecution for the solace of the forest, Donzelli shoots their sex as if the act itself speaks to the fight for personal passions in the midst of systemic disapproval. The sequence relishes their touching and squeezing of each another’s flesh as a rejection of prejudice, with close-ups on hips moving, but for a film so determined to champion ideological transgression, Donzelli frustratingly toes a standard formal line.
A few stylistic touches, like the use of a split diopter when adolescent-aged Marguerite sees her horse being shot to death, work to visually enliven moments well enough, but Donzelli’s depiction of the illicit affair never addresses its implications for contemporary mores—a troubling inaction given the film’s framing device, which seems to offer the potential for a dialogue between two moments in time. Instead, the young girls merely sit and listen, with their passive reaction shots sprinkled in whenever the film randomly returns to the present. When Jacques Demy made Donkey Skin, its fantastical elements were paired with an incest narrative to simultaneously reject the Disneyfication of fairy tales and integrate burgeoning feminist claims of the time, like the object status of women, into its own thematic concerns.
On the other hand, Marguerite & Julien is unforgivably straight-laced toward its gender representations, so that Marguerite keeps repeating how she needs Julien in order to legitimate herself, and Donzelli offers no scenes that convincingly complicate such cardboard-cutout manifestations of desire and pleasure. Even worse, nearly every scene lumbers with solemnity through its tedious conversations on the philosophy of love and fairness, without a shred of humor or levity. Much like the first two films in Daniel Auteuil’s borderline unwatchable reworking of Marcel Pagnol’s Fanny trilogy, Marguerite & Julien finds its filmmaker completely lost between impulses to pay homage, play it safe, or offer something—anything—new.