Catherine Corsini/ France/ 2018/ 135 mins
@Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 15 Mar 2019
“My story is a familiar one,” trills a chanteuse at a dance attended by Rachel (Virginie Efira) in a small French town in the late ’50s. At first, this does seem to be the case as she circles the dance floor in the embrace of Philippe (Niels Schneider). An Impossible Love is more than an ordinary relationship drama, however. Rachel’s story encompasses five decades and not only the initial bloom of romantic love but that of a mother and daughter. It’s an engrossing and panoramic melodrama that isn’t afraid to go to the darkest places.
Philippe is initially charming and sweeps the beautiful and naive Rachel off her feet. Yet it’s not long before he’s waving more red flags than the Pamplona Bull Run. He delights in displaying his culture and erudition and, by implication, his higher social status. He hands her Nietzsche to read (which is never a positive signal in movies) and is casually anti-Semitic even though she has Jewish heritage. Worst of all, when Rachel reveals she is pregnant, he refuses to acknowledge the baby and abruptly ends their connection. The bulk of the film sees Rachel raise her daughter Chantal with Philippe appearing in their lives once in a blue moon, like a malignant human Brigadoon.
Efira is brilliant as Rachel, one of the most rounded and believable heroines of recent year. Her transition from lovestruck ingenue to loving and stoic mother is beautifully handled. Rachel’s relationship with Chantal (Estelle Lescure plays her as an adolescent) is the film’s true emotional foundation and the ‘impossible love’ of the title. The most successful element is Rachel’s conflict as Philippe finally acknowledges Chantal. This should be a victory, yet she can see him manipulating the awestruck girl using the same methods that seduced her.
Schneider has a difficult role that he handles well. Philippe is a repellant character, yet it has to be plausible that women be drawn to him and to keep letting him back into their lives. Schneider has the same glowering Gallic attraction of a Romain Duris or Louis Garrel, appearing playful and predatory at the same time which partly explains the appeal. It is Efira however that has to convince with unfathomable motives for her continued connection with this man, and you can always empathise with, if not always understand, her decisions.
Although it occasionally lapses into languid periods of narrative inertia, it’s the relatively low-key approach to melodrama that anchors An Impossible Love in a recognisable reality. Love and pain are worn on the faces of its characters. Resolution is tentative and cautious. This is best exemplified in the gentle reconciliation between the aged Rachel and adult Chantal (affectingly played by Savages frontwoman Jehnny Beth) after the toxic breach ripped through their relationship by the pungent narcissism of Philippe. This is arthouse at its most accessible and as such it may fall awkwardly between two potential audiences. This would be a pity as the impressive Corsini has delivered a mature, sensitive drama with a delicate touch.