Since the start of 2019 just two French films have been on release in the UK but both have struggled to find cinemas in West Yorkshire. It’s good that the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds has managed to screen Un amour impossible three times this week. La villa (The House By the Sea) has failed to appear in West Yorkshire at all as far as I’m aware. Foreign language films have been almost completely absent from our screens while the endless array of Anglo-American ‘awards’ films take over.
In these sad circumstances I’m pleased to report that I enjoyed Un amour impossible very much. I have a couple of quibbles, but I was very taken with the performance of the Belgian actor Virginie Efira in the lead role as Rachel Steiner in Catherine Corsini’s engaging melodrama. (Catherine Corsini’s best-known films in the UK are Summertime (2015) and Partir (2009).) An Impossible Love is a long film (135 mins) but I was entertained throughout. In fact, my main quibble was that the last section of the film seemed compressed.
Rachel Steiner is a young woman in the late 1950s who we first meet at a dance in Châteauroux in the Loire. A young woman is singing Paul Anka’s ‘Diana’. There is a narrator who we will soon realise is Rachel’s yet unborn daughter. Rachel left school at 17 and became a typist, eventually moving into a government office where she is still unmarried at 25 – despite being very attractive and personable. But then she meets Philippe, a young man working as a translator. He’s from a wealthy family and highly cultured. She is smitten and a physical relationship begins. But when Philippe’s translator’s job ends he returns to Paris and Rachel discovers she is pregnant. He has told her he will never marry and she accepts this, bringing up her daughter herself with her mother and sister in support. Occasionally, Philippe returns and Rachel begins to believe that he should at least ‘recognise’ his daughter so that she doesn’t have ‘father unknown’ on her birth certificate. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative which then extends over nearly 50 years and which in the final section includes one major shocking revelation.
The narrative is based on a 2015 novel by Christine Angot which in turn is based on a true family story. The Belgian actor Virginie Efira, who was 40 when the film was shot, is required to age from 25 to her 60s (or 70s – I wasn’t quite sure when the final scenes are meant to be set). Her performance is extraordinary. I believed she was 25 – and 65. It isn’t just a matter of the make-up which took six to seven hours to apply each day for many scenes but also Efira’s facial and bodily movements, her speaking voice and overall physicality. Catherine Corsini thought carefully about whether to use more than one actor for the role and I think she chose well.
The film’s title is ambiguous since there are several interpretations of both ‘impossible’ and ‘love’ in the narrative. In the Press Notes, Catherine Corsini suggests that there are three main sections of the film: the romance between Rachel and Philippe, the solitude of Rachel bringing up her child and then the section in which Philippe ‘recognises’ Chantal leading to the ‘reveal’. I think that really there are four sections with the last part being split into two. As Rachel gets older there are more significant jumps ahead in time and I found that this happened too quickly. Over these sections the narrative draws on generic ideas about romance, then melodrama and finally moves towards a form of thriller or mystery. (During the romance the couple go to see Jeanne Moreau in Louis Malle’s A Lift to the Scaffold (1958) – an odd choice for a date night?) Throughout these changes we watch the impact of events on Rachel and how she has the strength to carry on.
Philippe is an obnoxious character but it is possible to see why Rachel falls for him. Much of the time he is charming and when he utters an anti-semitic comment or expresses his snobbery and class hatred it comes as a real shock – I found myself almost crying out in anger. In a way Philippe’s behaviour is also a commentary on social history in France. There is a mention of the war in Algeria in the 1950s, some remarks about German women after the war who have lost their men, Rachel’s father left France for Alexandria to escape persecution – all references to attitudes and personal histories that underpin everyday relationships from the 1950s to the present.
If An Impossible Love hasn’t come your way in the UK, you can also catch it on the streaming service of its UK distributor Curzon. I recommend it for the performances, Virginie Efira in particular, Catherine Corsini’s direction, Jeanne Lapoirie’s ’Scope cinematography, Virginie Montel’s costumes – and the entire hair and make-up team.