Everyone assumes Mathieu’s life is marvelous. He is a popular film actor, as evidenced by the waiters and receptionists who take it upon themselves to give an appreciative commentary on his film career as they serve the soup or sign him into a hotel. He is married to a celebrity news anchor. When he checks into a spa retreat in a seaside town otherwise deserted for the winter, he finds a glossy magazine with his face on the cover next to one of the relaxation chairs. The story inside has him talking about his marvelous life, in particular his forthcoming stage debut, with accompanying quotes from his highflying wife. This is the woman who was too busy even to say goodbye before he came here. But the worst of it is that he is there: He has pulled out the play. When it came to it, he was afraid to do something new. Nobody knows it yet, but he is a failure.
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Stéphane Brizé’s new film Out of Season (Hors-Saison), competing for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, starts out having a good deal of fun at the expense both of the wellness industry and Mathieu himself. Vapid music tinkles in the spa hotel’s vast foyer. The ridiculous treatments begin with inflatable trousers wired for some kind of unnamed stimulation: hocus-pocus for the rich. But how can Mathieu (Guillaume Canet, fabulously urbane) relax when even the coffee machine in his room seems to be permanently switched to a disaster setting, threatening to flood the room before it agrees to spit out an Americano? Or when everyone wants a selfie? But then, what about the people who don’t want selfies? The physical culture teacher who meets him on the beach half an hour late, then goes on about having been delayed by his sighting of a rare plover, doesn’t even seem to know who he is. That makes him just as uncomfortable.
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So far, so much amusing French farce. Then, suddenly, the cinematic weather changes. Mathieu gets a call from long-ago lover Alice (Alba Rohrwacher), who happens to live here and has heard he is in the thalassotherapy palace. It is more than 15 years since they parted, very unhappily for her, but they have a magical meeting over tea and cakes. They laugh a good deal. Alice is married to a doctor, has children and teaches music to children and the aged and makes up music she records on her phone for – as she says – precisely nobody. She feels like a failure. No wonder Mathieu left her, she says. Someone who never achieves anything, when he is a star. Now they argue. She goes home to the doctor, makes the dinner and weeps.
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And so it goes, exactly where you think it will: The couple’s dance of attraction and blame makes all the expected pit stops, then stutters through several potential endings before its final resolution. Its predictability would be the death of Out of Season but for two saving graces. First, the fact that Canet and Rohrwacher are so electric together; they hit a note between flirtation and warmth that is both endearing and compelling. As an example of romance as a genre, their scenes together constitute a masterclass.
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Secondly, Brizé is adventurous in the way he tells his story, even if the story itself is familiar. Shots of the shuttered seafront houses pop up unexpectedly to punctuate the lovers’ meetings. Empty white interiors overlook endless white skies, a startling counterpoint to the couple’s intimacy and the long stretches of conversation. Best of all – in a move as revelatory as a magician’s sudden reveal – he gives a sex scene a tremendous punch by shutting down the sound, so that we are suddenly focused entirely on the image of two people folded around each other, a Moebius strip of love.
There also are scenes drawn directly from real life, like slices of documentary sandwiched into the fiction. Alice invites Mathieu to come to a wedding at the retirement home where she teaches. It’s a happy union between two octogenarian lesbians, Lucette and Gilberte, both of whom appear in the credits as real people. Mathieu already has watched a video interview with Lucette, supposedly filmed by Alice on her phone, where she talks about her early marriage, her children, what sex with her husband was like and how she came out, both to herself and to the world, after he died. So it is never too late, Brizé seems to be saying, to live your best life — look at Lucette.
For the audience, it is encouraging; the difficulty both Mathieu and Alice face, however, is working out what a “best life” would be. Ultimately – and most unfortunately – their inability to do exactly that becomes exasperating. Heartache never knows when to stop, but a film should.
Title: Out of Season (Hors-Saison)
Festival: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Director: Stéphane Brizé
Screenwriters: Stéphane Brizé, Marie Drucker
Cast: Guillaume Canet, Alba Rohrwacher, Sharif Andoura, Lucette Beudin
Running time: 1 hr 55 min
Sales agent: Gaumont
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