Tuesday, August 23, 2005

La Petite Lili (Miller, 2003)

Working from Anton Chekhov's play The Seagull, Claude Miller's La Petite Lili strives to update the Russian playwright's themes of generational difference and the purpose of art for the early twenty-first century. The young playwright, Konstantin, at the center of Chekhov's drama has here become, Julien, a budding, young filmmaker, eager to express his idealistic world-view and distaste for the previous generations artistic goals. However, as evidenced by the clip we see early in the film from his most recent short film, he may have iconoclastic aspirations, but like many revolutionaries, he is unsure about what to erect in the place of the old forms, once they have been torn down. His film is passionate, but unfocused and vague, referring dreamily to the cycle of life, yet revealing a naivete about life's substance.

Julien's ungrounded artistic identity is mirrored in his steamy romance with Lili, the young actress featured in his film. When we first see the couple, it is in an idyllic scene of them nude, in the middle of the countryside, making love as if the world around them had ceased to exist. Like Julien's film, their relationship is impulsive and indulgent. For those involved it must surely be intensely satisfying, but because it is untested, it is also fragile. Notably, the film and the relationship die on the same day -- the first, a casualty of Julien's hypersensitve ego and his mother's snarky criticism ... the second, a victim of Lili's aspirations for success and experience, as well as the opportunistic manipulations of older, established filmmaker, Brice.

Betraying its theatrical roots, La Petite Lili has a very distinct second act in which we pick up the characters' lives four years later and discover that Julien and Lili are either more successful or more shattered than we possibly imagined they could be. Which is it? This is the central question that fuels the dreamy final section of the film, in which almost all of the characters are given an opportunity to replay critical moments of their lives as fiction. This is also where Miller achieves his greatest success, using the film-within-a-film to call into question the events we have witnessed earlier. Without revealing too much, I will say that Miller wisely defuses the comic abruptness of Chekhov's original ending by weaving it into Julien's screenplay. When the moment arrives, we are taken aback and wonder whether Julien's inspiration was pure imagination or if we are witnessing some kind of imagined reality in which Julien is finally given the ability to express his vision of the world around him.

La Petite Lili is compelling enough to sustain interest over the course of its runtime, but ultimately it hints at more than it actually reveals. It tackles the grandiose themes it has inherited from Chekhov and does an adequate job of giving them contemporary resonance, but it struggles to rise above the countless pack of what-is-real-what-is-fantasy narratives that have become a staple of recent cinema. Miller arrives at an ending that, I assume, is purposefully ambiguous, but perhaps, in this case, too much so. We may wonder where exactly Lili is heading when she sets out over that hill and we may debate the state of Julien's art and ponder whether he has launched himself on a satisfactory trajectory, but there are still numerous characters that Miller introduces only to leave their relationship to the film's central themes and purposes unclear.

Still, La Petite Lili is worth a look if only for watching Ludivine Sagnier's effortless and immensely attractive performance as the title character. The key to Sagnier's success is the way she combines girl-next-door innocence with the sexual comfort of a young Helen Mirren and she is given opportunity to display both here. She is no 'ice queen', like her compatriot Catherine Deneuve was in the 60's. Her performances are tactile, sensitive and thus affecting. This is very fortunate, as it balances out much of the rest of Miller's film which takes stabs at meaning, but often comes across as merely coy and distant.



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