En équilibre (In Harmony)

France (2015) Dir. Denis Dercourt

We’ve all seen those adverts on TV from insurance companies and injury lawyers trying to garner our custom with the promise of helping us receive sufficient compensation following a work related accident, but are they on the level? Denis Dercort’s latest film – his first released in the UK since The Page Turner in 2006 – incorporates this idea in what is essentially a slow burning romantic drama.

Marc Guermont (Albert Dupontel) was a renowned stuntman and horse rider until he was left a paraplegic after his horse Othello accidentally stamped on his back and broke his spine. Marc is waiting for his insurance payout by the company who keep stalling, deciding that a measly lump sum should suffice when Marc is expecting more. They send stoic Florence Kernel (Cécile De France) to encourage Marc to accept the lower deal which he stubbornly refuses.

During a meeting in which her bosses lament the lack of progress, one (male) colleague suggests Florence try seducing Marc to get him to sign. Florence reluctantly changes her appearance and softens her approach but the inevitable connection arises over classical music and Florence quietly puts the wheels in motion to get Marc the compensation he deserves.

A conventional sounding melodrama which you may be surprised to learn is in fact based on the memoirs of paraplegic equestrian Bernard Sachsé, although one suspects Dercourt was given free rein to embellish and augment the story and turn it into a palatable yarn for the masses. How much of the story is true I cannot say beyond the fact that Sachsé was indeed a classically trained equestrian and stuntman who suffered a similar tragic accident that left him paralysed.

Hardly the most pleasant of stories to facilitate a romance but it works, although one wonders if the duplicity of the insurance company was a personal issue Dercourt wanted to explore, or if Sachsé experienced the same. Needless to say this doesn’t shine a flattering light on the ethics of insurance companies but this soon becomes almost incidental once the relationship between Marc and Florence develops.

This ultimately becomes a tale of redemption for Florence, a former piano prodigy who gave up after failing one exam. Now a married mother of two, Florence has passed her ivory tickling love to her teen daughter Manon (Louise Mugler) and proves a strict but kind teacher while sneaking in a few bars herself while others aren’t around. When trying to suss Marc out first time, Florence discovers a CD of a piece Florence once enjoyed playing which triggers the yearning to give it another go.

With no money to pay for renovations Marc relies on primitive means to help he get about. He tries to ride Othello again until a second accident occurs, hospitalising him which ignites a sense of personal concern in Florence, who is aghast when she learns her boss (Philippe Duclos) not only froze Marc’s funds but also took Othello away.

The romance is hardly a shocking development yet Dercourt plays it quite ambiguously on Marc’s part, presenting us with a man who seems smitten but is unsure if he has won Florence’s heart or if she is with him out of sympathy. There are times where he appears to enjoy her company and her presence spurs his need to be active again while in other scenes his unsmiling face suggests uncertainty and possible hostility.

Florence is the easier of the two to read, clearly enamoured with the free spirit and steely determination not to let his disability hold him back. She is happy with her family or so it seems with no outward cracks showing, but with the piano constantly calling her and her gradual reduction in stiff business suits and chignon hairstyle for casual clothes and (literally) letting her down, change is very much forefront on her mind.

A slightly oblique ending aside this film offers few surprises and with The Page Turner being the sole point of reference for Dercourt’s work for most people this side of the English channel, it might seem a disappointment. With the former being a taut and suspenseful revenge thriller, no such tension or room for shocking twists are found here, leaving the story with a sense of predictability about it.

But, as is often the case, the right ingredients can make an ordinary cake feel special and this is where Dercourt compensates for the anodyne story. Albert Dupontel has that world-weary look about him but enough presence to engage as a strong and believable character. He commits wholly to depicting Marc’s daily physical trials while softening him enough for when Florence unexpectedly brings light to his gloomy days.

This is arguably an atypical role for Cécile De France, playing not only a business professional in Florence but a wife and mother too. Up until this point, De France has been the free spirit, the dangerous lover, the other woman and whole number of similarly unfettered characters. It is therefore something of a surprise to her in such a conventional set up (and with long hair to boot) but De France is up for the challenge and carries herself with the maturity and assurance the role needs.

Her essaying of Florence’s gradual softening of the heart and curious engagement towards Marc is wonderfully nuanced and never overplayed, allowing Dercourt to build an atmosphere around the vibes she creates. The same can be said for Marc’s borderline bohemian lifestyle in his tiny little farmhouse, an ambience that feels like an extension of him and not a product of his environment.

Anyone expecting another chilling punch to the jaw like The Page Turner delivered will be disappointed, although making comparisons is futile since both films are different. On its own merits En équilibre may be fairly pedestrian but the strong performances are key to the suitably pleasant and poignant entertainment found inside a tightly packed and glorious looking 83 minutes.