From The Land Of The Moon (Mal de pierres)

France (2016) Dir. Nicole Garcia

“Don’t know what I want but I know how to get it”

A slightly glib summation of the central theme of this film, based on the 2006 novel of the same name by Italian writer Milena Agus, but the ambiguity of the main character’s wants and desires makes understanding her a frustrating experience.

It begins in 1950’s France with José (Alex Brendemühl), wife Gabrielle (Marion Cotillard) and son Marc (Victor Quilichini) en route to a piano competition in Lyons when Gabrielle suddenly stops the car, jumps out and insist the journey continues without her. Gabrielle rushes to a nearby apartment block and checks the names on the residents list, stopping at a familiar one.

We then jump back to the end of World War II where Gabrielle is a young country girl with an unhealthy obsession with sex, trying to flirt her way into the affections of her married schoolteacher with humiliating consequences. Believing her daughter is in need of correcting, Gabrielle’s mother (Brigitte Rouan) gives her an ultimatum – get married or be sent to a sanitarium.

Gabrielle reluctantly chooses the former option, her unlucky husband-to-be being José, a kindhearted bricklayer who helped the family out during the war. Shortly after the wedding takes place, Gabrielle develops kidney stones and is prescribed a six-week spa treatment. At the spa, she meets and falls in love with injured soldier Lieutenant André Sauvage (Louis Garrel) leaving Gabrielle questioning her future.

Besides trying to imagine how the then 41 year-old Marion Cotillard can physically pull off playing a girl in her late teens/early 20’s with any credibility (which she surprisingly does), the other niggling issue with this practically unrecognisable adaptation of Agus’ novel is why we should feel any sympathy towards Gabrielle?

Certainly, in the prologue mentioned earlier, she is framed as an apparent prisoner in an equally apparent loveless marriage, living under the oppressive thumb of her husband, but the trip back in time paints a very different story. Even with this in mind, the early indication is that Gabrielle is a wild child in need of straightening out and maybe José had gone too far and turned her into a servile and chastened puppet over the years.

Not so, it would seem. When we first meet teenage Gabrielle, she is standing in a river, dress hitched up and enjoying the rush of water against her lady area – either cooling down or cleansing, your call. Gabrielle’s insatiable infatuation for sex is never explained other than she yearns for it despite not being actively promiscuous.

She teases local men by standing naked at her bedroom window and writing obscene passages to her teacher, otherwise her experiences are solitary ones. Raised as Catholic, Gabrielle even prays to Jesus that he shows her “the principal thing” which doesn’t even manifest itself when she and José eventually consummate the marriage, which only occurs when a jealous Gabrielle cosplays as a prostitute to encourage her husband.

Kidney stones aside, there are two pervasive questions that eat away at us through this film – is Gabrielle perhaps mentally ill in some way, maybe educationally slow? And what is there in this for José, knowing full well that Gabrielle has admitted no interest in him whatsoever?

A gradual acceptance of each other and a happy ending would be the usual journey the characters undertake, so we are indebted to director Nicole Garcia and co-writer Jacques Fieschi for offering something a bit more adventurous and spicy instead. Gabrielle continues to be a sullen and insular person at the spa until she spots the dashing but wan faced André.

Wheelchair bound and weakened by the condition that cut short his military duty, André is afforded preferential car through his father’s influence, allowing Gabrielle to spend time with him unnoticed to the masses. Acting as his de facto nurse, Gabrielle feels closer to André than she ever did to José, but as a noble man, he refuses to encroach on her marital status.

So, we are expected to feel sorry for Gabrielle who is now unsure if she is looking for love and not sexual gratification (or both) and effectively has two offers on the table but would prefer it from the one avenue not open to her. But with André also finding love out of his reach and José having ostensibly down nothing wrong, Gabrielle doesn’t deserve our sympathy.

Thankfully again Garcia and Fieschi have another trump card up their sleeves to play in making Gabrielle’s rehabilitation from selfish strumpet into a more agreeable wife and mother, which goes some way to abating any ill-feeling the audience may have towards her, but the entire scenario is so awkward and blinkered in the first place, it is only really the post-war setting that keeps our incredulity at bay.

As an actress with a 50-year CV and nearly 30 years as a director, Garcia shows signs of being a competent filmmaker here, displaying a keen eye for her subjects and a steady hand in storytelling, but the overly involved script refuses to yield to an even narrative flow. The imagery is luscious as always for a French period piece, the restrained colour palette proving very evocative for the era, whilst rural landscape shots are glorious.

Unsurprisingly, Marion Cotillard is the film’s best asset despite playing a protagonist unlikely to win over the audience. It’s a subtle performance which is Cotillard’s speciality, deftly overcoming the flaws of Gabrielle’s personality to make us at least feel something towards her. The perma-scowling Louis Garrel may look like a Buster Keaton caricature from the 1920’s but at least he’s not playing his usual obnoxious type.

Most reviews have not been kind to From The Land Of The Moon but it has a lot more going for it than the naysayers will have you believe. The story doesn’t quite convince as it should but the presentation and performances do. Worth a look for Cotillard’s turn alone.