SAVAGE SOULS (Les Âmes fortes)

(director: Raul Ruiz; screenwriters: Alain Majani d’Inguimber, Alexandre Astruc, Mitchell Hooper, Eric Neuhof, based on the novel by Jean Giono; cinematographer: Eric Gautier; editors: Béatrice Clérico/ Valeria Sarmiento; music: Jorge Arriagada; cast:  Laetitia Casta (Therese), Frédéric Diefenthal (Firmin), John Malkovich (M. Numance), Arielle Dombasle (Mme. Numance), Charles Berling (Reveillard), Carlos Lopez (The Mute), Christian Vadim (The Pastor), Edith Scob (First Woman at the Wake, Jacqueline Staup), Monique Melinand (Therese as an Old Woman); Runtime: 120; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Dimitri de Clercq/ Alain Majani d’Inguimber/Marc de Lassus Saint-Geniès; Gemini Films/Paramount Classics; 2002-France/Belgium/Switzerland-in French with English subtitles)

It is one of the filmmaker’s weakest efforts, as his abstract style doesn’t fare well on a film that demands a realistic approach.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Paris living Chilean-born surrealist filmmaker Raul Ruiz (“Genealogies of a Crime”/”Klimt”) listlessly directs this visually beautiful arthouse tale. It is one of the filmmaker’s weakest efforts, as his abstract style doesn’t fare well on a film that demands a more realistic approach. He was a last minute substitute for Alain Majani d’Inguimber, who was set to be the director but died before the shooting began. It is based on the thoughtful and controversial and excellent 1949 novel Les Âmes fortes by Jean Giono. It tells the intriguing story of a peasant girl living in 1880’s Provence. The team of writers Alain Majani d’Inguimber, Alexandre Astruc, Mitchell Hooper and Eric Neuhof are unable to make the story engaging or fully develop any of the characters. Even the story itself flounders, as it remains superficial and clumsily paced.

In Haute Provence, 1945, during a long night of a wake, several old women dressed in black begin to talk about the strange fate of Thérèse (Monique Melinand), the oldest member of the group. In Drôme, 1882, Thérèse (Laetitia Casta), a beautiful country peasant girl, 22, elopes with her fiancé Firmin (Frédéric Diefenthal), a blacksmith, and sets up a home in the nearby Provencal town of Châtillon. She befriends there the city’s richest and most generous woman, Madame Numance (Arielle Dombasle), and the pregnant bride soon becomes a pampered house-guest of the elegant woman when fired as a maid in another household after she becomes pregnant.

Firmin takes advantage of the friendship to swindle Madame Numance and her husband (John Malkovich) out of all their money (borrowing money from them to invest in shady schemes), who even though they knew they’re being cheated did not stop it. Soon afterwards Madame Numance disappears, never to be seen again.

Meanwhile Thérèse drastically changes her innocent personality and becomes a wanton woman. She cheats on her husband, belittles her lovers and maybe has even murdered her husband (he died suspiciously falling down a ravine).

Her life story is told that night, but no one can be sure if it is true or what might be the mysterious Thérèse’s motive for turning so sinister and calculating to a couple who treated her as if she was their daughter.

It was screened out of competition at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival.

REVIEWED ON 4/20/2020  GRADE: B-