An introverted yet eccentric French road movie–romance, When the Sea Rises possesses a scattershot charm, a distanced attitude toward comedy and context that is less likely a conscious style than the result of neophyte filmmakers testing their thin ice. And not just any first-timers: Co-writer/director Gilles Porte may be an experienced cinematographer, but Yolande Moreau, who also stars, is a seasoned character actress whose primary fame and skill lie in her years as a clown cum performance artist. The oddest thing about the movie is Moreau’s one-woman show, entitled Dirty Business and composed almost entirely of the resplendently zaftig Moreau—in a big-schnozzed papier-mâché mask and housedress and with bloodstained forearms—telling her saga of love and murder in an inarticulate growl, and eventually fielding a man out of the audience to take her dead lover’s place. It’s a stark and unamusing piece, leavened only by Moreau’s expressionless slow burns, and yet it packs houses with tittering (adult) ticket buyers all over the French-Belgian border. Essentially a variation on traditional le fou theatrics, the act represents a cultural divide that gave at least one American filmgoer scalp to scratch.
Giving her traveling artiste Iréne a routine she wrote and performed 20 years ago, Moreau may have unpacked her only store of material; When the Sea Rises does not blaze with invention otherwise. It does, however, bounce and frolic along in a distinctively shrug-happy way, as Iréne inadvertently beguiles Dries (Wim Willaert), a goofy, Dave Grohl–ish nowhere guy intent on being Iréne’s onstage volunteer in every show. Romance takes forever to bloom, and once it does Iréne, for one, seems to wonder why she’d bothered; her road trip is peppered with cell calls from her husband and child, somewhere in a house awaiting refurbishment.
The movie depends wholly on its charm load, and you have to stand in its way for it to hit you. A general tone of whimsical tolerance and infrequent bouts of fantasy do offset the decidedly unromanticized suburban landscape, which sprawls dourly out like France’s Ohio Valley. Porte and Moreau’s film is finally a kind of carnival story, in which everyone from Iréne to Dries (whose part-time job is manning a Mardi Gras giant at local fairs) to one festival’s drunken song-belting revelers is hidden in their own private performances. But if the movie stops short of exploring its own baggage, the actors still make for unforgettable company. Willaert is so guileless he can be bruising to look at, especially when he’s onstage with Moreau’s ogress, grinning like a schoolboy on a game show. Iréne is as shy and gentle as her stage persona is in-your-face, and however quiet and buttoned-down she remains, Moreau herself (a César winner for Best Actress) is the kind of woman—extra large, confident, middle-aged, almost gothically colored, unselfconsciously cloaked in dark silk—you rarely see in movies from any country. Iréne may be merely kind and frustratingly opaque, but Moreau is larger than life.