Marie’s Story indicates a banal concern for content from its very title, unable to specify narrative urgency beyond a broad sense of “based on a true story” pathos that’s by turns hollowly uplifting and tragic. At no point does director Jean-Pierre Améris deviate from the outward, manipulative trappings endemic to the film’s thoroughly saccharine register, as the tale of an orphan named Marie (Ariana Rivoire), born blind and deaf, is rendered without meaningful interlocution by Améris’s direction, which oscillates between pedestrian and ill-conceived. The 19th-century French setting receives little interest beyond serving as a backdrop to the human elements, where a young nun, Marguerite (Isabelle Carré), is charged with caring for Marie, while trying to teach her sign language. Améris initially plays their interactions as sensual; when Marie touches Marguerite’s face, it’s viewed almost as if a caress and not simply a detached moment of learning. Likewise, subsequent scenes of intimate instruction between the two characters challenges Marguerite’s chaste vows to the extent that a crisis over her sexual urges appears immanent.
All of this is tricky representational territory, especially given that Marguerite’s excessive amounts of control and power could easily be conceived for more lascivious purposes, where the film’s insights would derive from purely exploitational interests. Instead of a measured, carefully considered weighing of such dilemmas, Améris opts to engage these potentials to problematic results, relying on heavy, voiceover breathing and a dissolving text-credit sequence (lifted straight from La Ciénaga) that intimates Marie’s condition as one of horror or nightmare. Moreover, Marie’s prized possession is a small knife that she clings to at all times, which Améris consistently lingers on in close-up as if foreshadowing a crazed murder spree. All of the buckled wrists and wild laughter also contribute to an offensive sense of Marie as mental patient instead of disabled stray. These portrayals are a long way from the serious challenges found in a film like Camille Claudel 1915, where institutional mental illness is treated not as a starter for horror tropes, but a space to examine the severe efforts necessary for healing intensive psychological trauma.
Were Améris more daring, these complexities would be pursued as narrative ends rather than cast aside as aberrations or moments of incidental longing. The film’s final third is especially tedious, as Marguerite’s illness is given no relevance beyond its immediate effects on Marie, who’s told by Marguerite, in one of her last gasps, to “Live. You must live.” Without a focused meditation on the sexual politics inherent to the film’s unorthodox relationship, Marie’s Story lacks urgency whatsoever, since it’s perfectly clear that what remains beneath those glimmers of repressed desire is simply a hokey sense of forced inspirationalisms and tattered drama, masked by the dour facts of the film’s historical origins.