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Friday, 14 July 2017

Le Grand Chemin (1987)

It's been a while since I wrote about my friend Richard and the 13-seat cinema in his garden. Although he schedules at least two movies a month for his newsletter group, I have usually seen his selections -- and credit where credit is due he does try to schedule lesser known films, and most often I have my own copy. Therefore I was delighted to visit him last night to view the above French film which was completely unknown to me. The only copy with subtitles that he could obtain was a DVD of a VHS tape taken off a television showing some years ago, so it was not up to Blu-ray standards, but still well-worth the experience.

What surprises me is that the copy was taken off a Channel 4 showing which I normally would not have missed -- so perhaps I was away at the time. (That's no excuse, Pat!)

Anyhow, back to the business at hand. The film is an effective and affecting coming-of-age story based on director Jean-Loup Hubert's screenplay from his own autobiographical novel. Nine-year old Louis (charmingly played by the director-s own son in his film debut) is 'dumped' for the summer by his heavily-pregnant mother on her childhood friend Marcelle in a 1950's small Brittany town. Mom must cope with the later stages of her pregnancy and little Louis' father is keeping himself well out of the picture. At first the boy, Paris-raised, is traumatised by the rough country ways he encounters. His introduction to Marcelle is her bleeding a rabbit for dinner and skinning its 'pyjamas', leaving Louis with no appetite that night.

Marcelle's husband Pelo played by Richard Bohringer -- the only well-known name in the cast -- is a hard-drinking, rough-edged carpenter, and any marital love that may have existed between the pair evaporated after the death of their infant son. They live together like two bickering strangers. Marcelle takes the boy to church; Pelo's preference is to take him fishing. However neither adult has as strong an influence on the sheltered boy as the ten and a half year old tomboy Martine, who lives next door in another fatherless home with her mother and ripe teenaged sister. Martine, beautifully played by Vanessa Guedj, indoctrinates Louis into the ways of the world and helps him to overcome his fears and inhibitions. By the time the summer ends, Louis is on the way to becoming his own person, but he has also softened the animosity between Marcelle and Pelo. They begin to rekindle their long-dead passion.

I was not previously familiar with the actress playing Marcelle, Anemone-- like so many French players particularly in the 30s and 40s, she uses a single name (in her case taken from her first film role back in the 60s.) Both Bohringer and she won French Cesar awards for their roles in this film, but the natural and charming performances by the child players are what makes this movie memorable and moving.

Perhaps one reason that the film remains obscure (unrightfully so) is because it got a Hollywood remake as "Paradise" (1991) with Melanie Griffiths and her then-husband Don Johnson as the adults and youngsters Elijah Wood and Thora Birch as the children. I'd quite forgotten having viewed that movie. However, I am sure I shall long remember this film for its poignancy, beauty, and subtle evocation of a particular time and place.
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