La Petite Lili

on November 12, 2004 by Kim Williamson
There's that moment, right at the start of "La Petite Lili," that certain appreciators of French cinema will like: The moment when the barely legal young beauty (here, "Swimming Pool's" Ludivine Sagnier, as the Lili of the title) casually doffs her frock and enjoys open-air amours, here under the boughs of lakeside Brittany, with a passionate young gent ("Son Frere's" Robinson Stevenin, as experimental filmmaker Julien) whose smoky gaze gives sure sign of his desire. Now, what follows in this adaptation of Anton Chevhov's "The Seagull" by director and co-writer Claude Miller ("The Accompanist"), who chooses to underscore his use of source material by inserting shots of seagulls flying among the opening credits, actually has little to do with that moment. Or seagulls. But, you know, it's French.

But what follows is not so much French as universal--the story of a group of people, each focused tightly on their own lives, and how each of those tightly focused lives bounds and rebounds off those of the others: aging actress Mado Marceaux (Nicole Garcia of Miller's "Alias Betty"), who's as contemptuous of her son Julien's digital-video efforts as he is of her stagey establishment films made with her director and lover, Brice ("Ridicule's" Bernard Giraudeau); the forlorn Jeanne-Marie (the excellent Julie Depardieu--like father, like daughter), desperate for the taken Julien, who sees only Lili; Mado's acerbic brother Simon ("The Return of James Battle's" Jean-Pierre Marielle), whose key target is his friend, the unflappable country doctor Serge ("The Aviator's" Yves Jacques), who must also deal with the attentions of Leone ("The Taste of Others'" Anne Le Ny), married to Jeanne-Marie's father Guy ("Grosse Fatigue's" Marc Betton), who manages the Marceaux household. For Chekhov fans, that's Arkadina, Konstantin, Trigorin, Masha, Nina, Sorin, Dorn, Polina and Shamrayev.

For film fans, at least those who can live with subtitles, "La Petite Lili"--which was nominated for the Golden Palm at the 2003 Cannes fest--is, despite all the character contretemps, a warm and engaging experience. The fact that the roles are so precisely defined limits the effort's ultimate depth, but the fact that the players so humanly capture their roles gives the film more than a veneer of honesty and unconstructedness. The final act, which reunites all combatants five years later to make a film of their experience, doesn't exist in the original Chekhov, but that the reprise plays so well--it's a sort of greatest hits of scenes that came before--attests to the strength of Miller's storytelling throughout. Starring Mado Marceaux, Bernard Giraudeau, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Ludivine Sagnier, Robinson Stevenin, Julie Depardieu, Yves Jacques, Anne Le Ny, Marc Betton and Michel Piccoli. Directed by Claude Miller. Written by Julien Boivent and Claude Miller. Produced by Christine Gozlan. A First Run release. Drama. French-language; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 104 min

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