It all sounds pretty French: teenage boy falls in love with his older aunt, attractive, smart, and been around the block a few times, as incarnated to perfection by Béatrice Dalle. The expected dynamic is subverted, however, even obliquely in the opening scene, and the well-worn elements of such a relationship are treated as though anew, with little interest in misplaced teenage priapism.
It’s established swiftly that Nadia’s milieu is one of sophisticated, intellectual bohemianism. She is a rather tortured mathematics professor; Pierre is not yet old enough to buy cigarettes. More teasingly established, although he dotes on her as a willing peon, he may not be quite the typical moony teenage boy, with a sexual interest directed elsewhere than his aunt.
Not French but Austrian, in fact, writer/director Patric Chiha’s primary motivation was to film La Dalle. The film is less a young man’s rite of passage than the exposure of cracks in a tough, hurting, older woman. The role is one of those magnificently intense, suffering, emotional ones that necessarily conjure the spectres of Davis and Crawford. Dalle is predictably terrific, with her aged, goblin, jolie-laideur, and that exquisitely French sense of noble, justified world-weariness.
It’s quite forgivable, therefore, to hope for a Dalle explosion – it’s part of her stardom – but Chiha’s tone is set by the slightly melancholy, night-time riverside campfire. Expression of emotion is subtle and deliberate, the film’s rhythm an almost narcotized blur. Episodes repeat themselves in a steady accretion of character, as Pierre and Nadia walk around Paris a lot. For all the frequent moments of apparent inaction, however, the characters are never doing nothing. Both Dalle and Isaïe Sultan amply inhabit these moments when Chiha allows them (not so) simply to be.
An outburst of some kind is missed, then, but Chiha’s constraint is appropriate to the metaphysical straitjacket this fiercely intelligent woman feels herself to be in, and to her somewhat mute nephew. A deliberate deceleration of pace is carried over even into the black-hole nightclub we repeatedly revisit, where the broiling sea of dancers is mesmerically slowed-down. The pain of the film’s emotional revelations and disappointments is never absent, however, most clearly expressed in the muted desperation of Nadia’s fellow residents at an Alpine sanatorium.
Nadia’s relationship with Pierre is therefore made obscure and complex. Furthermore, she professes a fundamental mistrust of words, and her sometimes-contorted forms of communication are symptomatic of a turning in on oneself, a somewhat frightened self-isolation. Pierre meanwhile becomes his own man as it were, taking center stage in his life and in the nightclub, in a sequence that drifts charmingly away from reality. Other sequences are piqued by the strange wanderings of background extras, and a dark fairytale notion of being lost in the woods builds as the film’s central metaphor. Chiha is unafraid to sink his actors into a soft, dusky murk of underlighting, and the steady understatement builds to a climax of unexpected, sinister cruelty, and literal obscurity. Quiet, careful, and rather beguiling.