'From the Land of the Moon'
After winning a surprising awards circuit sweep in 2007, Marion Cotillard found herself in a special position. Suddenly, she could command big Hollywood paychecks and also get European art house fare bankrolled just by signing on. Since then, she’s regularly leaped across oceans to do both. While there have been some brilliant movies made in Cotillard’s name, far too many have been like ‘From the Land of the Moon’. This stilted, dull, and often nauseatingly navel-gazing exercise in misery porn exists purely to let Cotillard emote hard and stare out in dull pain even harder. She’s good at it, but it would be nice if the movie surrounding all that acting offered as much to audiences as it did to the actress.
Cotillard stars as Gabrielle, a woman who is so desperate for love that it consumes her every action, want and desire. At first, that starts with the actress almost inexplicably playing a teenager so distraught by the rejection of her teacher that she seems incapable of even moving. Her mother gets so fed up with her moody obsessions and constant complaints of cramps that she gives Gabrielle a choice: Either marry the dependably handsome but boring bricklayer who has asked for her hand to advance his social standing, or go live in a sanatorium. Naturally, Gabrielle chooses the first option and enters a loveless marriage. Good news, though! Hubby realizes those cramps are kidney stones rather than nuttiness and sends her off to a distant clinic for treatment. There, Gabrielle meets a handsome war vet who poetically speaks of doom. You’re not going to believe this, but she starts feeling those pesky love stirrings once more.
Obviously, this is one of those distinctly French racy and pained tales of failed intimacy, ugly sex, and misery. It’s the type of thing that could be played for sultry, colorful and ridiculous melodrama were it produced in any other country. However, in the land of staunch arty-fartery that is the French art house circuit, there’s no such thing as irony. Director Nicole Garcia treats it as seriously as possible. Lingering cameras with gorgeous soft light capture beautiful people bemoaning existence and treating each other horribly, because “That is the pain of life, you see.” It can be gut-wrenching when handled with a sense of subtlety and/or realism (see the Dardenne brothers and so many others), but not in the manner that Garcia intends. She wants this to come across as a profound truth that must be studied and felt with poetic anguish by viewers who chain smoke and quote undergrad philosophy papers immediately after the screening.
‘From the Land of the Moon’ can be a painful sit. The film stacks on one miserable scene and despicable character after the next within beautiful frames and demands us to appreciate the majesty of the “art.” It’s also a rather dull experience, sticking to one single languished and nasty note with little variation. At the center of it, Cotillard delivers an impressive performance. Her sunken eyes were made to express inner angst and her fearless physical commitment to portraying cinematic misery is matched by few other actors. (Somehow, she even plays a teen at 40 without it seeming too laughable.) For those who adore watching Cotillard go through hell over and over (if ever there was an actress destined to be majestically tortured by Lars von Trier, it’s her), the film is not without its charms. For everyone else, this is an endurance test of a particular brand of pretentious cinematic misery.
Not too be too harsh to Nicole Garcia’s film. There’s an intriguing theme at the center of the piece about the comfort many find in misery and the fears they face in letting that go. She’s also fearless in her depiction of a lead character who shows no easy sympathy and strains even for empathy. The film is a prettily constructed work of misery porn, but not a particularly interesting one. It’s not nearly lurid enough to work as guilty pleasure melodrama or even close to as profound as it thinks it is. The thing just lumbers along from one tragedy to the next, building to a twist(ish) ending likely to inspire more sighs of exhaustion than gasps of excitement. Still, Cottillard does get to do her misery routine and does it well. The film could have been worse; it just should have been so much better.