Composer and pianist Ann Hidden (played by Isabelle Huppert) discovers her husband is cheating on her and decides not just to leave him but to change her life utterly, in Benoît Jacquot’s 2009 film Villa Amalia.
The film is understated, fluid and elusive; sometimes too elusive, in fact – it contains many short, enigmatic scenes, and doesn’t feel quite solid at the end. The first scene, however, is captivating. The opening shots are from inside and outside a car, driving through wet streets at night. Ann’s face looks anxiously back at us in the rear-view mirror. It feels like a crime film, and as the camera follows her as she leaves the car, we sense something appalling is about to happen. Two shocks come next; she sees a man (we assume, correctly, her partner) kissing a woman in an upstairs room. Then a man approaches from behind, speaks to her. He suggests she is watching the house because she plans to rob it – she agrees, rather than tell him the truth, then he reveals that he is Georges, a childhood friend. This intervention allows the focus to move immediately from the betrayal to the rediscovery of a friendship. Ann later rewrites the incident on her terms: “I saw nothing that night… I saw you.”
With a rigid expression and total control, Ann proceeds to dismiss her partner, Thomas (whom she describes to Georges only as “the man I live with”), sell the house and pianos, cancel her professional work and prepare to leave. Yet the leaving seems to drag on – in fact, it takes over half of the film. Ann’s relationship with Georges deepens. This delay, and the difficulties it reveals, feels far more honest than the high drama of a quick getaway. The undoing of a comfortable life is complex. “It’s hard to disappear these days,” Ann says wryly, as yet another part of her ordinary, affluent life is parcelled away.
Huppert is uncannily sensual; she moves like a dancer and her face can be passionate in one moment, impassive the next
This next part of the film is full of light, as she travels, discarding clothes and bags as she goes, paring herself down until she reaches southern Italy. There she takes the road less travelled, and instead of starting a romance with Georges, falls for a woman instead. It is refreshing that this is not presented as some kind of revelation of her true self or a definitive marker of a new start. Georges’ bisexuality, too, is understated. It’s refreshing to see a film where characters don’t try to analyse each other out of existence, or where certain plot developments are used to clunkily symbolise renewal or revelation. The subjects and events of the film are treated at a distance, and in relative quiet. There is space (though perhaps a little too much) to draw our own conclusions.
The film’s DVD release coincided with the cinematic release of the latest Julia Roberts outing, Eat, Pray, Love, another story about a woman whose marital breakdown is the catalyst for a journey and a new life. I’m sorry I haven’t seen it because I think it would make a delicious comparison to this film.
What Eat, Pray, Love shows is a woman consuming her way through relationship grief (albeit more through ‘spiritual’ than material experiences), being vocal and analytical about it, and wrapping it all up in a neat little Carrie Bradshaw homily. By contrast, none Ann’s rejection of objects, relationships and places seems false or neat.
Everything she does is because (in a paradoxically decisive manner) she does not know what to do. She never seems to clasp onto the Western crypto-Buddhist myth that a simple life and a change of scene will clear your worries; but then, it becomes a little tiring to try to work out what she thinks at all.
What makes the film worth sitting through is Huppert; uncannily sensual, she moves like a dancer and her face can be passionate in one moment, impassive the next. I wonder whether she is rather limited by always playing icy, controlling characters; she does it brilliantly and perhaps that has led to her being typecast. But she (or rather the character) is also a stumbling block. Even though Ann’s history has unfolded by the end of the film, offering us some insights to explain her determined flight, she is just too opaque for us to ever have a grasp on. “There are no whys!” she cries when Georges questions her plans to flee. Although it is an absorbing and moving piece, the lack of whys leaves one intrigued but unsatisfied.
Gloria Dawson is a researcher and writer of poetry, journalism and short stories. She blogs on activism, urban geography and the environment at theblackcorner.wordpress.com