A scrupulous and impeccably acted account of the fallout from a family secret, Marion Bridge is all the more remarkable considering its genre lineage. The frightful specter of Dolores Claiborne and countless issue-of-the-week TV tearjerkers hovers over any tale of ambivalent homecoming in which fences are mended, reckonings made, unspeakable abuses revealed. But Wiebke von Carolsfeld's feature debut, scripted by Obie winner Daniel MacIvor (adapting his own play), defies its genealogy with grace, economy, and unstinting compassion.
The three sisters of Marion Bridge live in the past, but unlike Chekhov's famous trio, they don't pine for it, nor do they long for the big city. (MacIvor also owes a debt to Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres, which in turn took on the ultimate three-sisters template, King Lear.) Youngest sister Agnes (the incandescent Molly Parker), two months sober, journeys to her Cape Breton hometown to help care for her ill mother, but middle sib Louise (Stacy Smith) and oldest Theresa (Rebecca Jenkins) greet the prodigal daughter with indifference and suspicion, respectively. The return requires Agnes to wade through a minefield of ghosts; for her sisters, however, Agnes herself is a bad memory, for reasons both within and utterly beyond her control.
The women bear suggestive behavioral scars: Po-faced Louise, beached on the sofa (perhaps a nod to Chekhov's recumbent Masha), numbs herself with junk food and junk TV; self-styled mother superior Theresa, wielding her martyr complex like a truncheon, toils in humiliating subservience to her no-goodnik boyfriend. Like Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl, Marion Bridge identifies the alchemy of blood ties as resentment and helpless adoration, mingled beyond distinction.
Much more happens in Marion Bridge than a simple plot recital might indicateit's an accumulation of telling incident, of interior softenings and hard-earned gestures of kindness. (In the movie's most indelible scene, a whispered offer of a cup of tea unleashes a flood of tears.) We're conditioned to expect an ultimate showdown, of course, and the filmmakers deliver one, but only as an expertly calibrated study in anticlimax. Face to face with her target, Agnes steadies her gaze, holds it a moment, then walks awaya tiny, maybe meaningless victory, and a breathtaking proof of the near impossibility of catharsis.
The most ecstatically cathartic finale in recent moviedom belongs to Beau Travail, wherein weathered acrobat Denis Lavant goes disco-apeshit to Corona's "The Rhythm of the Night." Claire Denis's sublime tone-poem translation of Melville's Billy Budd wafts into Brooklyn as part of BAMcinématek's 11-film series "Films de Femmes: Female French Directors," a fine means of catching up with the last decade's output from Freedom Nation's foremost réalisatrices, as well as a rare chance to see Breillat's underscreened Brief Crossing. Talk is cheap and plentiful (the irritable motormouthing of Agnès Jaoui's The Taste of Others is an acquired but worthwhile flavor) and so are repressed bourgies (as in Anne Fontaine's Dry Cleaning, featuring the redoubtable Charles Berling in trademark brittle, uptight mode). Meanwhile, Catch Me If You Can viewers longing for more Nathalie Baye in their celluloid lives can revel in her bittersweet lead performance in Tonie Marshall's Venus Beauty Institute.
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