An Impossible Love (Un amour impossible)

France (2018) Dir. Catherine Corsini

They say you can’t help who you fall in love with (not that I would know) but there must come a point when the penny would drop and make such a splash upon impact that it is time to pull the plug on the relationship. Of course, it is harder when a child is involved but when one-half of the couple has distanced themselves from said child, theoretically, it should be easier, right?

1958 and young half-Jewish typist Rachel Schwartz (Virginie Efira) is wooed and bowled over by educated translator Philippe Arnold Laurent (Niels Schneider), and whilst Rachel thinks she’s found her Mr. Right, Philippe is a man of pretentiously high standards, stating he will never get married unless the family is rich. They become a couple anyway and soon Rachel falls pregnant at which point Philippe decides to move to Germany.

A daughter, Chantal is born but Philippe is resistant to being a father, then changing his mind over the years, finally becoming a regular presence in her life when she is a teen, after being ex-communicated for marrying his pregnant – and rich – German girlfriend. Chantal (Estelle Lescure) finds her intellectual father interesting and spends more time with him, eventually pushing her mother out of the picture and putting a strain on their relationship.

Based on the 2015 novel by Christine Angot, An Impossible Love is a title that is not just wholly apt but not as predictable as it might sound. The above synopsis only tells half the story, with a shock twist at the 96-minute mark to shake things up and give the title its multiple meaning. A regular family melodrama this isn’t, instead it delivers a probing character study of dysfunctional (non) family unit that actually infuriates the audience as opposed to enlighten them.

Philippe providing much of this frustration might imply a misandry-driven story to fly the flag for the girls but this is oversimplifying the interpretation of the story, though it has to be said, and forgive my bluntness, Philippe really is a grade A tosser. Surely, anyone who quotes Nietzsche to chat up a girl then gives her a list of books to read in that vein deserves that epithet?

This is only part of it. Despite being a loquacious, charismatic smooth talker (in many languages), his bourgeois manner is grating from the onset but clearly impressive enough to win the shy and demur Rachel over. At this early stage, we can’t really blame Rachel for feeling swept off her feet as Philippe not only talks the talk he walks the walk too – except for the commitment part of a relationship.

Again, there is no rush for marriage or even living together this early on but as soon Rachel informs Philippe of the pregnancy, he swiftly reaffirms his inherent resistance to marriage and slinks off into the sunset. Alone, Rachel gives birth in early 1959 with Philippe only showing up a couple months later, even unable to hold his daughter yet still manages to worm his way into Rachel’s bed.

Now the pattern is set – Philippe continues to abrogate his responsibility as a father to Chantal but his visits to see his daughter are a means to get Rachel between the sheets again. Lather, rinse, repeat. If Philippe deserves a slap for his appalling, solipsistic behaviour (I defy anyone not to want to reach through the screen and throttle him), Rachel is in need of a good shake to wake her up and see how she is being used.

To her credit, Rachel makes no financial demands from Philippe but does want to have his name put on Chantal’s birth certificate instead of “father unknown” which he balks at, forming a sore point between them for much of the film. Most screen villains earn the ire and audience disgust for acts of violence, genocide, and physical and mental abuse – Philippe achieves this by being a selfish, self-absorbed smug git.

Yet, as sympathetic as Rachel is for putting up with this and carrying on to raise her daughter with grace and resolve, she does herself no favours in how she always lets him into her head. The second half of the film sees Philippe’s influence continue to dominate Rachel’s life through Chantal, a once strong bond slowly being worn down until it is being hold together by a few strands.

I won’t discuss why this is but the final act is set in modern times with Rachel now a grandmother in her 70’s and adult Chantal (Jehnny Beth) still carrying some residual baggage concerning her father now in hospital with Alzheimer’s. The last scene is Chantal mostly venting but about what I am not sure – is she angry with her mother or her father or herself?

Because this is so rushed and ambiguous in its content, it leave a sour taste in the mouth as a satisfying conclusion in summing up and clarifying the main themes of the story and offering an explanation for the bemusing actions of the characters. This is no fault of the cast, all of whom play their roles with required aplomb and understanding of the personalities, but a timing issue as this film didn’t need to be 125 minutes long.

Spanning six decades, each era is beautifully replicated and bathed in a suitable colour palette for a nostalgic touch, but the real delight is Virginie Efira’s powerhouse turn, taking Rachel from her twenties to her seventies without missing a beat physically and emotionally, bolstered by the convincing make-up in disguising the then 41 year-old’s natural looks. Niels Schneider deserves a nod for being so hideously and effectively vexing as Philippe as does young Estelle Lescure as teenage Chantal.

Corsini never lets up with intensity throughout, making An Impossible Love a draining drama for its length and one that has its merits but needs a little streamlining to keep the audience fully invested for the duration.

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