BOOKS AND ARTS OCTOBER 11, 2010
A film about a child that is not intended to charm us is brave. The Girl, from Sweden, scorns the idea of charm and bravely concentrates on the life of a nine-year-old simply as a life. (We don’t even learn her name.) We are left at the end with a sense of experience, not some sort of benevolence.
She is the daughter of a young couple who live in a pleasant country house. They do a sort of social work and are off to Africa on a mission with their daughter. In fact, the first thing we see is the girl getting a vaccination. At nearly the last moment, word comes that the couple can’t take their daughter with them. Disappointments and apologies flow, and luckily, an aunt is available to come and stay with the girl during the parents’ absence. At least the girl’s swimming lessons will now be able to continue.
Karin Arrhenius, who wrote the screenplay, has provided a series of incidents that are—with two exceptions—recognizable yet interesting. Fredrik Edfeldt, who directed, has chosen a girl named Blanca Engström who is completely credible rather than winning, and with the aid of Hoyte Van Hoytema’s camera, he has laced his film with landscapes, even still lifes, that suffuse it with loveliness. (The girl, like most dwellers in lovely places, takes the beauty for granted.)After the parents leave, she goes to swimming class one day. Each of the children is asked to dive and does so, except our girl, who doesn’t. This is a possible hint of a response to being left behind by her parents. Then, unexpectedly but somehow not shockingly to the girl, the aunt in charge soon proves peculiar. Asking the child to understand, she goes off for a while with a man, after getting the girl to promise not to tell her parents. The aunt’s defection stretches our belief a bit, but if we are generous, we understand that there couldn’t have been any film without it.
There is never any question of danger for the girl: there is just the absence of plan and the occasional previously suppressed indulgence. (When she walks into town to shop, she buys a lipstick.) She hangs out for a while with two girls of about thirteen at a neighbor’s house—two girls who are just over the border of puberty, which the girl herself is not. The older ones are obsessed with sex; the girl seems to know what they are talking about but doesn’t care. The older ones manage to get a farm boy of the girl’s age to join them and proceed to strip him, much to his and the girl’s dismay. She and the boy later have a tussle and she accidentally injures him, which is perhaps an aftershock of the stripping.
At home she opens cans and eats. She even monkeys a bit with liquor but doesn’t get drunk. She is personally untidy and unkempt. What is especially notable throughout, in practically all these adventures, is her composure. Some of the things that happen are new; all of them are being experienced alone for the first time. Yet she has the calm so often seen in children during fascination by the new. They often manage to maintain an assumed aplomb while they are plunging ahead intothe unknown. Possibly the most disturbing moment for her comes one day in the locker room at the swimming class. Her teacher, a heavy woman in her fifties, sees the girl staring at her nude body almost with petrifaction. The teacher chuckles and promises the same future to the girl.
Then something incredible happens—the film’s second reliance on our cooperation. A huge multicolored balloon complete with passenger basket makes an emergency landing near the girl’s house, and out crawls a handsome young balloonist. She invites him into the house, gives him lemonade, and lets him comb her long hair-getting the burrs out. Then he takes her for a balloon ride. We are so wonderstruck by this whole preposterous balloon episode that we hardly have the energy to disbelieve it. Can it be fantasy? It is couched in the same texture as all the rest of the picture. It is much easier to believe that it really happens, as incredible things do.
The parents return—the aunt returns just before them—and the girl goes on with her swimming lessons. Then, at the pool, comes the one incident that shows the effect that her time alone has had on her. Otherwise we just spend a hundred minutes with this serious, intelligent child who is testing a new way of living. Strangely, all during this film without much conventional drama, we can’t wait to see what will happen next.
The people who made Heartbreaker ran into trouble early. The writers of this French comedy came up with a good basic gimmick—what the trade calls a “high concept.” But setting up that concept would take only a relatively few early minutes of screen time; they then had to figure out ways to use the gimmick, to sustain and vary it for all the rest of the picture’s ninety minutes. The writers—Laurent Zeitoun, Jeremy Doner, and Yohan Gromb—met the challenge pretty cleverly, and the director Pascal Chaumeil kept his touch as light as possible. We go along with the gag. (Wry confirmation of success: we are told that Heartbreaker has already been bought for an American remake.)
“High concept” comedies are usually of two kinds. First, the Audrey HepburnGregory Peck Roman Holiday kind, in which the story is the lifelike development of possibilities that exist in the basic gimmick. Second, the Buster Keaton Seven Chances kind, in which the gimmick arbitrarily imposes comic conditions on life. Heartbreaker is the second kind. A thirtyish man named Alex has worked out a scam. For a fee, and aided by a team including his sister, he will break up engagements. He is generally hired by a girl’s parents to woo her away from her intended. But—all professions like to have ethics—he won’t take on a job if the affianced couple are truly happy, and he won’t sleep with the girl.
This scam, synopsized, may not seem tenable, but as it is revealed to us in the film’s first sequence, it is so amusing that we just want it to go on. The story bubbles along until the inevitable happens: the scammer is himself involved, the biter is bit. What helps tremendously is the taking performance of Romain Duris as Alex. He is a skilled chameleon, and, even more helpful, he is attractive but certainly not handsome. This helps to keep the scheme sufficiently lifelike. The rest of the cast spin their roles perfectly, with Héléna Noguerra inevitably prominent as a steamy nympho.
Virtually every film-making country makes pictures of this high-concept kind, sometimes well, but France obviously wants the championship. Heartbreaker helps.
Postscript. For years I thought that the eminent Italian screenwriter Suso Cecchi D’Amico was a man, because of her first name. Then I met her son (a professor of English at the University of Rome) who explained that Suso is a dialect nickname for Susanna. This only increased my admiration for her. That she had built her exceptional career in a gender-biased world made it even more remarkable. The film historian Gian Piero Brunetta says that she was the only significant Italian woman screenwriter of the postwar period. To the outside world—though presumably she must have encountered some gender antipathies—she seemed to be moving from film to film simply because of her talent.
D’Amico, who died in Rome on July 31 at age ninety-six, began screenwriting in 1945—the last of her 118 pictures was in 2006. The first notable film on which she collaborated was nothing less than The Bicycle Thief, with no less a director than Vittorio De Sica. But gravity was not her only mode: comedy frequently fizzed up along the way. Some of the comedies were Miracle in Milan, also with De Sica; Too Bad She’s Bad, which launched Sophia Loren; The Taming of the Shrew, in English with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. It is hard to name a prominent postwar Italian director with whom she did not work. (Fellini, perhaps, but she may have written for him uncredited. She certainly knew him.) Among the celebrated with whom she did work were Michelangelo Antonioni (Le Amiche), Francesco Rosi (Salvatore Giuliano), and—her longest-lasting association—Luchino Visconti, who wanted her for almost all his films, including The Stranger, Rocco and His Brothers, Senso, and The Leopard.
She liked collaborating. She said more than once that her idea of film-making, especially in Italy’s golden age, was getting together with a few friends who were excited about the same idea. Yet the mere titles of many of her films—their generally high level—bespeak a writer who was especially wanted for qualities of aspiration. I remember wanting to read comment on D’Amico only a few years after she began, and not finding any.
She is a classic instance of the right person in the right place at the right time. From a cultivated family (her father was a distinguished literary critic), gifted, and curious about this art to which intellectuals had not been much drawn in her country, she responded to the splendid postwar wave and helped to keep it cresting. I used to wish that we had some individual work of hers. Then I learned a rueful fact. When I met her son, we happened to talk about adaptations of novels, and I told him that I thought Harold Pinter’s screenplay of Proust, unproduced but published, was the best film treatment of a great novel. D’Amico said, “Ah, but you haven’t read my mother’s version of it.” Unproduced and unpublished. I will obviously never know it. But the mere fact that she had written it heightened her unique luster.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article ran in the September 23, 2010, issue of the magazine.