Film captures agony of break-up

February 01, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'C'est la Vie'

Starring Julie Bataille and Nathalie Baye.

Directed by Diane Kurys.

Released by the Goldwyn Company.

Unrated.

*** That's life, indeed. A mother and a father break up and though the pain is intense, the true weight of the rupture is felt in the collateral damage to children who watch and yet do not quite get it. They get the pain, though.

That inchoate ache is at the center of "C'est la Vie," the new Diane Kurys film that's opening today at the Charles.

Kurys, as she has before in "Entre Nous" and "Peppermint Soda," is working in a mode that might be called "magical autobiography." Surely this is her own life and surely in Frederique, played enchantingly by Julie Bataille, do we have a version of the young Diane Kurys in the year 1958, at the summer house outside Lyon, watching with tragic isolation as her family deconstructs. Yet at the same time, it's slightly exaggerated, movie-vivid, dramatized, dryly witty. It's life with the boring parts cut out.

Kurys is honest enough to portray the deconstruction of the family without politics or moralizing. As in all true stories, there are no villains and no heroes, only survivors. In one sense, her mother (Nathalie Baye) is a kind of pre-feminist hero: married to a petit bourgeois shopkeeper, she must have certainly wanted more from the sheltered life with her work-crazed husband. When she takes up with a muscular young sculptor, and the inevitable consequences occur, Frederique still cannot judge her severely.

At the same time, the father (Richard Berry) isn't a brute, though on occasion -- one horrid argument when he slams his unfaithful wife's head against the floor, screaming "slut" at the top of his lungs -- he can act like one. But Frederique doesn't hate him either, nor judge him for not being a father she felt she deserved. In his way, he was a good man who tried hard, after his own fashion.

That explosion, however powerful, is the exception to the film's thrust. More usually, Kurys' technique portrays the pain from distance, as if muffled; she shows us only ramifications, the intimations concealed in whispers or pauses. It's a marriage break-up almost in code.

Kurys doesn't labor the period details either, though they are convincing; nor does she seem to pay special attention to the tribe of children and an aunt and uncle whose constant presence always interferes with the emotion of the moment. The whole thing feels like a little bite of memory, chewed slowly, all details and nuances intact over the years.

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