Historical French Incest Drama ‘Marguerite & Julien’ Fends Off Silliness


Marguerite & Julien may have been written for François Truffaut, but director Valérie Donzelli (Declaration of War) interprets this scandalous tale of seventeenth-century French nobility with a transgressive romanticism and historical anachronisms more akin to Derek Jarman (Caravaggio).

Donzelli, who adapted Jean Gruault’s original screenplay with partner and collaborator Jérémie Elkaïm, presents sibling incest as the taboo amour fou of star-crossed lovers. When Marguerite (Anaïs Demoustier) and Julien de Ravalet (Elkaïm) are reunited as adults, the adoring affection of childhood becomes carnal compulsion, confirming the fears of their great-uncle, the Abbot of Hambye (Sami Frey). Their passion isn’t hidden or downplayed: Demoustier and Elkaïm act as if possessed by fevered desire. After the family pressures Marguerite into a face-saving marriage, Julien plots their escape to England.

The film is awash in doomed romanticism, epitomized by a framing device of orphan girls recalling Marguerite and Julien’s plight as if they’re reading Twilight after lights out. Donzelli’s tone of studied seriousness can easily tip into silliness, especially when she deploys such out-of-time flourishes as a hovering helicopter and the Shangri-Las’ “Past, Present, and Future” as the fugitive lovers are separated.

If jarring juxtaposition is meant to provide a contemporary sensibility to this period biopic, it’s not as effective as the way cinematographer Céline Bozon captures life at the château and surrounding woods with a vibrant naturalism. The widescreen intimacy of small moments — the flush of a rain-soaked cheek — humanizes Donzelli’s grand folly and the couple who challenge the parameters of morality.

Marguerite & Julien

Directed by Valérie Donzelli

Sundance Selects

Opens February 26, IFC Center

Available on demand

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