The Story of Marie and Julien
(Histoire de Marie et Julien) (2003)
Directed by Jacques Rivette

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * *

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While blackmailing a woman (Anne Brochet) he knows only as Madame X, Julien (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), a clockmaker living alone, except for a cat, in his large house, encounters an old acquaintance, Marie (Emmanuelle Béart), whom he invites to stay with him and with whom he soon begins a passionate affair. As pleasant as this couple's life together is, Marie's often strange behavior reveals that there is, quite possibly, something supernatural about her existence that is not immediately apparent.

Jacques Rivette's The Story of Marie and Julien is a carefully paced often fascinating film. While I cannot say that it is ever deeply affecting, it is unlikely to let the viewer's interest wander.

The story the director tells is filled with melodramatic details, such as Julien's blackmailing of Madame X and the eerie circumstances of his life with Marie, but it is presented in such a restrained way that it is never overwrought. In fact, more often than not, the narrative does not so much seem to be the focus of the film as it does the means to bring out a particular emotional tone. The Story of Marie and Julien is saturated with a sad liminaltiy that really is mesmerizing.

The supernatural elements of the story are not, however, overtly revealed with weird special effects, but are merely hinted at. The director, for example, often depicts Marie's obsession with arranging the furniture in a room in Julien's house in a certain way that, apparently, makes little sense, and then slowly exposes the frightening explanation for her actions. Elsewhere, he mentions details about her past that allow the perceptive viewer to infer the nature of her present life or shows her interacting with persons whose strangeness is more clearly delineated. Rivette is able to stir up a sense of otherworldliness with this approach that is, at once, vaguely creepy and genuinely intimate. It undoubtedly adds a peculiar magic to the movie.

Even the film's visual qualities generally contribute to this feeling. The director demonstrates considerable skill in bringing out the loveliness of ordinary objects and activities and in adding both mystery and emotivity to these. With slowly developed scenes, he lets the viewer both see and feel Julien's despair, Marie's oddness, and both of this pair's developing affections for one another. By pleasantly indulging in a contented appreciation of the world, the director causes the moviegoer to immerse himself in similar sensual indulgences.

I cannot fail to note that the performances of both of the leads are praiseworthy. For most of the movie, they bring out their characters' emotions, their sorrows, desperation, loneliness, and passionate love, not with histrionic wailing but with simple gestures and restrained glances. Because of this approach, which permits the viewer to believe in the characters, when the director does include emotionally charged scenes, these have a veracity that such moments often lack in cinema.

Although I will not claim that The Story of Marie and Julien is a great film, it is well made and enjoyable.

Review by Keith Allen

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