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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
All the World's Mostly a Stage
by Donald Levit

Included as a selection in Lincoln Center’s “Rendez-vous with French Cinema,” When the Sea Rises is misleadingly cast as “romantic comedy” for its January 13 release. More often than not, that particular genre turns out awfully limp rehash of late, so audiences who should catch this nugget may take a pass. Better advised would be publicity’s “sweet and genuinely off-beat,” which it is, though overused “bittersweet” seems closer.

In this 2005 Best First Film and Actress César winner, co-written and –directed by Gilles Porte and Yolande Moreau, the core plot is not original. Two people meet away from home -- he, Dries (Wim Willaert), does live nearby, in a warehouse, but “it’s temporary”--are intrigued and, through circumstances, drawn to one another into love; but one is already solidly married with a child, and the other feels “used” and “throw[n] away like an old tissue.”

The tale is given new elán vital in also-cinematographer Porte’s poetic homage to northern semi-rural but industrialized areas, in wondrous quiet acting by all involved -- though the essential cast boils down to two -- and by the blend of filmed stage and filmed life as well as of laughter and tears (the latter poles too baldly pointed out in a late reference to philosopher Henri Bergson’s 1901 Laughter).

The concept of art reflecting and containing life, which itself mirrors art, which in turn is life distilled to its essence, is also old. This world as theater, and this particular film-performance variant takes root in an actual touring one-woman show. Belgian-born Moreau wrote Sale Affaire/A Dirty Business of Sex and Crime twenty-three years ago, in dance-hall afternoons, from the idea of loneliness and the need for love. Wearing a grotesque Cyrano-nosed half-mask out of Munch, she hit the boards of towns and cities at home and abroad with herself as a woman whose mundane existence rings more horrifying than an opening admission of just having murdered a lover.

Her wedding ring removed and her arms painted red, her props a wooden chair, a water pistol and a handbag whose protruding leek is M. Hulot’s umbrella, her forty-something bulges unflattering in a frumpy dress and saggy socks, Irène Delcourt (Moreau) is blue-lit onstage. The audience -- a real one -- howls with laughter at her Tom Lehrer-like confession and urges on one of its number she selects to join her up front.

On the road to some theater, cabaret, town hall, beer or comedy festival or retirement home, her newish Peugeot 400 stalls, and a passing motor-scooter rider tightens the battery cable and is rewarded with two complimentary tickets. That evening, he becomes her “randomly” called audience participant and, after a contretemps at the next show, her travel companion and regular “random choice” at every stop.

Attractive in that shaggy way of French leads, though a Flemish-accented speaker, high-red-sneakered Dries lives loosely, from one small job to another, his one true anchor being the oversize heads with which he bunks and which he and friends carry in village parades. He in his van, she listening to La Traviata in the car, they travel the circuit and she grows more distant in phone calls home to confer about new tiles for the house. Against an also ugly-attractive backdrop of traffic, malls, beachside refineries and power pylons that march as skeletons for giant head Totor, they feel free, she of bodiless voice-husband Michel and son, and he of the parents to whom he introduces “my wife” but of whom he at once asserts, “they’re not my folks, either.”

With its hints of Chaplin’s Verdoux and references to Bluebeard, this life-stage and stagelife cannot go on indefinitely. Something’s got to give, and so it will, but Moreau and Gilles resolve it in a coda months later. Sidestepping an insistent question that would suck vitality from their movie, their lives, their play, a pigtail-less Irène says, “I don’t know; you’ll have to ask him,” and looks through a window at Dries and his giant head of her stage persona.

(Released by New Yorker Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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