I was attracted to this title by the the presence of Isabelle Huppert, Freya Mavor and Lars Eidinger. The film was screened at Berlin in 2022 as part of a focus on the films of Isabelle Huppert. Halfway through I wondered if I would get to the end but I decided to keep going. Reflecting on the film the next day, I can’t be sure if the problem is me ‘not getting it’ or if the film is indeed flawed in some way. It’s quite difficult to discuss without spoilers because it is a partly a mystery or at least there is a twist in the narrative that some will see coming. I won’t spoil it. I should also state up front that the performances and the technical credits are all very good. My problem is arguably more to do with the conception of the narrative and how it has been presented on screen.
The title itself is an issue. The film begins with Huppert as ‘Joan Verra’ who explains to camera why she is called ‘Joan’ and how in France most people she meets don’t know how to pronounce the name. It was chosen by her Irish father. This introduces the second structuring feature of the film. The story involves settings in Ireland, France and Germany. Whether this was inherent in constructing the original story (co-written by director Laurent Larivière and François Decodts) or was a function of the production deal to shoot in each country, I don’t know. The story begins in Ireland in the 1970s with Joan as a young woman played by Freya Mavor as a French au pair in Dublin. Mavor is one of several UK female actors who is bilingual in French and English and she previously played the younger version of Charlotte Rampling in The Sense of an Ending (UK 2017). It’s an interesting casting choice and although Mavor is physically quite different to Isabelle Huppert, she is able to suggest enough resemblance to make the story work. I enjoyed the Irish scenes but Joan has to leave Ireland for what what was a common reason at that time. We then experience Joan played by Huppert 50 years later in Paris, meeting the Irishman she met in Dublin, but now in a chance encounter. The film focuses on Joan as the central character. Mavor plays her as the young mother of Nathan in France but Huppert has to play Nathan’s mother at different stages of his life as an adolescent, as a young man and as an established scientist. Three different actors play Nathan as Huppert as Joan remembers her son at each stage of his development.
Lars Eidinger plays Tim, Joan’s lover and client – he’s a writer, she is a publisher and several scenes take place in Germany where Tim, a famous author, is promoting a new book. Eidinger is a celebrated German stage actor who was recently cast against Nina Hoss in My Little Sister (Switzerland 2020). In both films he plays a character who is at times manic and prone to extravagant gestures. Isabelle Huppert mostly plays Joan as calm and collected. She can be convincing as a woman approaching 70 but also as someone twenty or even thirty years younger. There is also an almost separate but parallel narrative about Joan’s parents and this involves an extraordinary fantasy sequence when her mother decides to leave her husband and daughter (with a small boy) and move to Japan.
I hope I’ve given enough information about the plot to convey a sense of what the narrative covers without giving too many spoilers. It’s a strange mixture and by picking moments across 50 years of a life it’s inevitable that some aspects seem a little strange. We don’t know how Joan in her twenties with a child to look after was able to become a successful publisher and to buy a large house in rural France. Perhaps there is a fantasy about this too? The director states the following (via Google translate from the French):
. . . we wanted to write a portrait of a woman, in the form of a romantic film, which takes place over different periods, in several countries. A melodrama but one which is crossed by comedy.
Hmm! I’m not sure it’s particularly funny and the romance is a little obscure. The family melodrama has possibilities not fully realised. There is an attempt to make the three locations symbolic – Ireland is depicted with a grainy filter, Germany is blue but France is green and gold. Huppert and Mavor are both worth watching but Eidinger seems to be in a different narrative. Here’s the French trailer. The film appears to be available to stream on Amazon, Apple and YouTube: