Julie Bertuccelli, “Claire Darling / La derniere folie de Claire Darling” (2018)
On the first day of summer in a small village somewhere in France, an elderly woman, Claire (Catherine Deneuve) – heir to a mining fortune – wakes up and is convinced that this day is the last day of her life. She arranges for local men to cart all her furniture and possessions into the front courtyard – including all the objects, dolls, knick-knacks and objets d’art she has collected over the years – where they are to be sold in a giant garage sale to the entire village community. Everyone rocks up to gawp at the objects on sale and the amazingly low prices offered. A local woman Martine (Laure Calamy) who happens to be an old school-friend of Claire’s daughter Marie, contacts the daughter and informs her of what her mother is doing. Marie (Chiara Mastroianni) immediately races over to try to stop the garage sale from going ahead but not before several major objects and prized pieces of furniture have gone.
This premise serves as an opportunity to explore dementia in elderly people, the effect of ageing on people’s memories and how memory serves to establish and maintain people’s identities and relationships with others past and present. The garage sale and the various objects that it emphasises – most of all, an elaborate elephant clock and a reproduction of Monet’s “Water Lilies” painting – hint at various past episodes in Claire Darling’s life (in which a younger Claire is played by Alice Taglioni), in particular how her son and husband died before their time and the lies that led to the rift between Claire and her daughter. Not a few sub-plots arise – in particular a sub-plot that hints at Claire and the local village priest becoming attracted to each other, and one that hints at Marie renewing a friendship (and finding romance) with local gendarme Amir (Samir Guesmi) – of which even fewer come to resolution or completion. The objects being sold themselves hold memories and guard secrets – most of all, the secret of where Claire’s lost ring has gone – and the garage sale itself becomes symbolic not only of Claire’s possible dementia but of her own life since the unhappy break-up of her family decades ago.
An alternate view of the garage sale might be that, since Claire is convinced that her life is to end that day, the sale of the objects is her way of preparing to die by divesting herself of all that has burdened her, psychologically and physically, throughout life. Although we never find out why Claire has always needed to collect ornaments, books, artwork and furniture, or why she hides precious dolls and toys in a garden niche, we can surmise that this hoarding gives her the security that she needed throughout her life but has never had. Over the years though, the security has become a burden that eventually compels her to live as a recluse surrounded by all her hoarding.
The film unfolds slowly with flashbacks to the past deliberately mixed into the present to demonstrate how past memories continually intrude into and influence present-day events. As a result, while the immersion into the French countryside can be very appealing (if rather deliberate and kitsch – there are few signs of poverty and no Gilets Jaunes protesting against President Emmanuel Macron’s austerity politics slowly killing French society), the action is drawn out and most characters do little more than run around in circles. An opportunity to present French village life as it might have been in the past and contrast it with the present – with the soulless efficiency of the city encroaching on and destroying what individuality and quirkiness remain – is missed.
The film’s climax, when it comes, when Claire expects her premonition to be fulfilled, arrives unexpectedly and suddenly, with most of the recluse’s secrets and issues still not fully resolved with Marie – or the rest of the village community for that matter. The Big Bang ending is surreal, akin to the famous conclusion of Michelangelo Antonioni’s cult film “Zabriskie Point”, in which everything flows back into the river of life. Far from preparing for death, Claire was preparing to live again.