The plays of the 18th century French dramatist Pierre Marivaux — best known stateside for “The Triumph of Love” — are often fueled by linguistic flair and delicious romantic machinations. A new film of his 1737 farce “False Confessions” (“Les fausses confidences”) is fueled almost entirely by Isabelle Huppert.
Worse fates could befall a movie, and the formidable Huppert, tapping a far lighter vein than in last year’s “Elle” or “Things to Come,” brings a fascinating physicality to the role of a wealthy widow, whether she’s doing tai chi in satin pajamas or teetering on Louboutins. But despite a few playful flourishes, filmmaker Luc Bondy’s experiment in artifice never takes flight.
A Swiss director of opera, theater and film, the late Bondy shot the feature in 2014, in and around the Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe in Paris, where he was staging a production of the comedy with the same troupe of actors. The daytime shoot, in which the public space of the theater is used as a stylized version of a private estate, is bathed in sunlight, and the camerawork by Luciano Tovoli (“Suspiria”) often has a lovely translucent burnish. The story, though, with its muddled layers of stratagem and longing, remains opaque. Its questions of class and status are plain, but few of the characters come into three-dimensional focus, even after the somewhat strenuous matter of sorting out the relationships and ruses.
Setting the upstairs/downstairs maneuvers in motion, Dorante (Louis Garrel), once well-off and now financially strapped, arrives at the home of Huppert’s Araminte as her new secretary. He’s been alerted to the position by his former valet, Dubois (Yves Jacques), and eased into it by his uncle, Rémy (Bernard Verley), who’s the widow’s lawyer. The valet schemes to make Araminte fall for Dorante while the lawyer works to pair the young man off with the servant Marton (Manon Combes). Plotting from yet another angle, Araminte’s imperious mother (a glammed-up Bulle Ogier) conspires to ensure that her daughter weds a count (Jean-Pierre Malo) who comes courting via legal dispute.
“False Confessions” may deal in antiquated statutes and mores governing marriage, but the notion of “marrying up” is hardly obsolete, and Garrel intermittently conveys a recognizable tangle of desire, desperation and sangfroid. It’s up to Huppert, though, to inject the languid proceedings with frissons of mystery and delight. Almost everyone in the movie is pretending, to others or themselves, but Araminte is a professional actress, and the Gallic star has fun with the character’s false modesty and self-dramatizing. Her expert jolts of low-key slapstick, not to mention her self-confidence in a gold lamé tracksuit, light up the screen amid action that’s otherwise bereft of emotional heat.
It’s unclear what resonance Bondy intended by using the contemporary setting and costumes. The director died in November 2015, before he could finish the film; his wife, writer-director Marie-Louise Bischofberger, saw to its completion and is credited as co-director.
The resulting feature commemorates not just the play’s run but, more poignantly, Bondy’s final collaborative effort. Yet what might have had impact in live performance is mere suggestion in this telling. The project’s interplay between stage and cinema undoubtedly reverberates for the actors; for the rest of us, it’s a footnote to a chapter of theater history.
In French with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles