Maïwenn’s My King aims to be a searing modern-day relationship drama along the lines of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage and Maurice Pialat’s We Won’t Grow Old Together, focusing as it does on a couple—Tony (Emmanuelle Bercot) and Georgio (Vincent Cassel)—who fall in and out of love with each other over the span of many years. And certainly, the acting and direction in the film are strong enough that its grand ambitions come close to being realized. Bercot and Cassel have a convincing romantic chemistry on screen in the early stages of their characters’ relationship—and Maïwenn, encouraging a generous amount of improvisation from her performers, often allows scenes to run longer than expected to allow us to hang out with these characters and observe their behavior in detail.
But while revelations about the characters—Georgio’s alcoholism and infidelity, Tony’s own struggles with depression during her pregnancy—may be dropped into a scene, the film too quickly moves onto the next one without their implications given enough room to breathe. That the film cuts between Tony’s memories of her life with Georgio and her current efforts at a hospital to recover from a debilitating skiing accident partly justifies this rushed superficiality, as Maïwenn is attempting to impressionistically render Tony’s own frazzled sense of recall. And yet, that isn’t enough to banish the suspicion that My King might have been more resonant had Maïwenn allowed more time and space for her characterizations to organically develop. When, at one point, Tony bitterly articulates to Georgio her realization that, even after all their years together, she still doesn’t really know him, the audience may well realize that, as much as Maïwenn allows us to watch Tony and Georgio interact, ultimately we don’t really know these characters either.
Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s Three Sisters has no such problems, but that’s probably because of its source material. Though Bruni Tedeschi and co-writer Noémie Lvovsky have included a few idiosyncratic details not in Anton Chekhov’s famous turn-of-the-20th-century play, and aside from the the third act having been excised, the film is basically a straight adaptation of the stage drama, with barely an attempt made to open things up beyond its one house setting. If My King features many scenes of characters simply hanging out with each other, Three Sisters is essentially built on three such lengthy sequences, set in three different time periods, in which we closely observe the titular siblings—Olga (Florence Viala), Macha (Elsa Lepoivre), and Irina (Georgia Scalliet)—and their various acquaintances, friends, and relatives as they try to distract themselves from their current dispiriting stasis, whether by drinking or gambling their sorrows away, philosophizing about their lots in life, or keeping their hopes alive by thinking about the future.
Bruni Tedeschi adopts a classical style that emphasizes the performances, with long takes and slow tracking shots following the members of the cast as they reminisce, parry, and bond. One sequence in the middle of the film, however, offers an intriguing break from the staginess: a very un-Chekhov-like party scene in which many of the characters engage in a drunken soirée that seems borne more out of desperation than actual joy.
Cinema itself becomes an element in this adaptation when army doctor Ivan Romanovich (Bruno Raffaelli) brings a projector to the sisters’ home and screens films for them and his fellow soldiers—including, in the film’s final moments, Georges Méliès’s A Man of Heads. Later, Bruni Tedeschi even includes a surreal scene in which the sisters’ late mother walks off a movie screen and into the arms of a still lovelorn Ivan while he’s watching archival footage of her by himself. But perhaps Bruni Tedeschi’s most striking personal touch lies in her soundtrack, with her anachronistic use of not only French pop songs, but Lou Reed’s “Smalltown,” an excoriating ditty that, in this context, emphasizes the sisters’ innermost desires to cast off the chains of their dead-end lives in this particular village once and for all.
Anachronisms and all, though, the essence of Chekhov’s play remains intact—and what a bleak essence it is. The house in which these three sisters continue to live and work after their father has passed away becomes more than just a setting, but a state of mind: one of seemingly never-ending stasis, a landscape of dashed dreams in which characters are left to either justify their bitter compromises or continue to maintain an optimism toward an ostensibly brighter. In Bruni Tedeschi’s film adaptation, the beauty of the open-air outdoor settings become almost oppressive in the way they implicitly taunt these characters for their belief in life as a “burden,” in which characters are forced not only to work for goals that seem more impossible by the year, but also to try to talk themselves, through high-minded philosophical musings, into believing in the long-term value of their soul-sucking work. And yet, as with the best art, it’s the ruthless clarity with which Chekhov—especially through Bruni Tedeschi’s camera—sees these despairing illusionists that lends the film its cumulative gut-punch power.
Rendez-Vous with French Cinema runs from March 3—13.