Where have all those flowers gone? That’s the question of the hour in Olivier Dahan’s posh and overwrought tale of gorgeous scenery and mental illness, La Vie Promise (The Promised Life).
A pill-popping, tightly wound hooker working the Nice tourist zone, Sylvia (Isabelle Huppert) takes it on the lam after her long-abandoned 14-year-old daughter, Laurence (Maud Forget), shows up one night, enabling an abusive pimp to fatally impale himself on a kitchen knife. The plot machine grinds on, as mother and daughter make it to the countryside, quarrel, and split up, then spend the next 45 minutes roaming around the summer landscape searching for each other.
Sylvia goes from modeling a teddy to clutching one, although she never abandons her high heels. Periodically, people call her name and receive a goofy glazed look of non-recognition. Around the time that Laurence is rescued by a distinguished car thief (Pascal Greggory), it becomes apparent that Sylvia is completely insane. It’s hard to blame her. La Vie Promise (described by its director as “a musical ballad in the form of a portrait of a woman”) has an uncommonly abusive score—Mel Gibson, are you listening? The heavy ballads, syrupy orchestrations, and crashing piano chords are cumulatively annoying; the strident countertenor who belts out “Wayfaring Stranger” in the scene where Sylvia stumbles across her burnt-out old home would drive anyone mad.
The only conceivable reason to immerse oneself in this inexplicable release is, of course, Huppert. Gravely, she accepts the challenge of delivering a coherent performance in a wildly incoherent role. This superb actress can register more fugitive shifts in expression in a single take than most actresses manage in an entire movie. (And she can always be relied upon to drop a single, slow-rolling tear.) If it was Marlon Brando’s genius to render the inarticulate eloquent, it is this most introspective of performers’ genius to distinguish 47 varieties of blankness. As for the other performances—don’t dash muttering from the theater before the final close-up of the flower dancing in the wind to a cocktail version of the gospel hymn “A City Called Heaven.”