Review: Eugénie Grandet
- Olivier Gourmet excels as a miserly capitalist who enslaves his freedom-seeking daughter in this adaptation of Balzac’s uncompromising novel whose true essence is deftly teased out by Marc Dugain
"Those with no respect for money can have no hope of happiness". "Discover the world? What can you hope to get from it? ", "Meat? Broth is more than enough", "When will you get on and marry Eugénie? She’s no spring chicken and, what with our bad luck, she’s no prize catch." It’s 1819, the time of the royalist Restoration and the rise of capitalism (triangular trade, property speculation, etc.) following the squalls of the Revolution and the Empire, and in Saumur, in the depths of the French provinces, a young woman spends endless days at home, dividing her time between sewing, reading, looking out the window and a succession of frosty, formal meals with her mother and father: "a life where nothing happens, which counts for nothing, spent waiting on men’s whims."
By adapting Balzac’s ferocious novel of the same name to make the movie Eugénie Grandet [+see also:
film profile], which is released today in French cinemas, courtesy of Ad Vitam, writer and filmmaker Marc Dugain, who has a keen interest in historical forays (An Ordinary Execution, The Royal Exchange [+see also:
film profile]), isn’t only hoisting a cruel but edifying must-read from the French literary canon back into the spotlight with perfectly incisive faithfulness, he’s also endowing it with modern-day echoes which fit perfectly with the current tide of understandable, feminist questioning of the patriarchy’s ongoing hold, and denunciation of corruption in ultra-capitalist quarters.
These vast, societal issues are exposed by the novel and the film via a family microcosm and a darkened home ruled over by Félix Grandet (the brilliant Olivier Gourmet), a wheeler-dealer who’s keeping a low profile as he fiercely negotiates land, stones, barrels, etc., all the while claiming to be poor and having even convinced his wife (Valérie Bonneton) and daughter Eugénie (Joséphine Japy) as such. As it stands, he considers and treats the latter as if she were an item of personal property from which to draw the greatest possible profit; in other words, to spend as little as possible on her dowry and to strip her of her inheritance, if need be. Consumed as he is by a feverish greed for gold, Grandet is also voraciously possessive, and when Eugénie – dreaming, in her solitude, of nothing but great romance - is seduced by a (disingenuous) Parisian cousin passing through the town (César Domboy), her father very literally cloisters her in her bedroom, refusing to listen to his wife’s protestations: "even if she died, and you along with her, I wouldn’t forgive any of it". As it turns out, death is already making its advance and Eugénie’s grand hopes for freedom feel increasingly fanciful. But fate has more than one trick hidden up its sleeve…
A razor-sharp portrayal of everyday evils and of the shadows cast by the deification of money in a conformist, provincial context which is characterised by rumours, schemes and Sunday churchgoing, Eugénie Grandet weaves its web in nigh-on huis clos style, positing a powerful echo chamber for human society. This is an intimist story whose true essence is successfully teased out by Marc Dugain, thanks to well-judged temporal ellipses (even if the love at first sight phase moves a bit too quickly), wonderful work on light and faces by director of photography Gilles Porte, and, of course, an array of highly talented actors (Olivier Gourmet with his startlingly sly selfishness and Joséphine Japy who’s perfectly cast as the pure, innocent and idealist victim, but almost all of the supporting actors, too). It’s a feature film which yet again demonstrates the ruthlessly evocative power wielded by Balzac, and which denounces the fate reserved for women, whatever the era, when they’re forced to suffer men’s dominion with society’s blessing.
(Translated from French)
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