Monday, 9 February 2015

Le Petit Prince a dit (Christine Pascal, 1992)


When I first saw Christine Pascal’s Le Petit Prince a dit (1992) some twenty years ago at my local arts cinema, I was so moved that I missed its next (and final) showing because its poignancy was still resonating so powerfully in my mind. I’ll catch up with it again later, I thought. I’m still waiting. On my list of favourite movies awaiting a proper dvd and blu-ray release, this has occupied top spot for some time.
The subject-matter could hardly be less enticing, concerning a ten-year-old girl who is diagnosed as having an inoperable brain tumour and only a short time to live. Yet Pascal’s handling of it is faultless. All dangers of mawkishness or morbidity are scrupulously avoided. For one thing, father (Richard Berry) and mother (Anemone) are not happily married but happily divorced, which is a piquant complication. Also the girl, Violette (Marie Kleiber) is not cuddly cute but plump and petulant i.e. real and believable. And the handling of the revelation of her illness is satisfyingly oblique rather than overtly sentimental. Her scientist father  accidentally discovers it through an overheard conversation  and his scrutiny of a scanner screen in a cold hospital room. Her actress mother learns about it midway through rehearsing an opera in Milan. Life has a way of cutting the rug from under your feet when you are least expecting it. When the father has to explain her illness to the girl, he does it by diagram and behind dark glasses: evasion takes a while to give way to emotion. He will eventually snatch her from the examining table and take her to visit her mother in Milan and then to their family home in Provence, believing that prolonging the child’s life for two more years of painful surgery will be less beneficial  than a joyful holiday break and perhaps the illusion that father and mother have been reunited.
The midsection of the film makes superb use of its locations. The off-season hotels and the open roads, with their deceptive promise of release and freedom, gather a momentum of gentle melancholy. During the final scenes a stray dog that Violette has adopted on their travels goes missing; the father is distracted as he eases Violette’s stepmother out of their cottage so the parents can be together for what could be the girl’s final hours; the mother adopts a tone of strenuous cheerfulness; Violette becomes a bit exasperating. Everything builds to the concluding moments where the girl is about to fall asleep, with her head hurting terribly. The father grips her pillow so tightly that his knuckles show. A mercy killing, if not enacted, is surely being contemplated, at which point the film mercifully stops.
The performances are all superb, and Bruno Coulais’s lovely score put me in mind of  Ravel at his most gravely beautiful. One particular image has stayed with me: the moment when a butterfly lands almost caressingly on Violette’s forehead whilst she is asleep in the country and then flies away. It is as if Nature has come to bless a departing spirit.
Two years or so after seeing the film, I read with deep sadness and shock that Christine Pascal had committed suicide at the age of 42 by throwing herself out of the window of a private hospital near Paris where she was being treated for severe depression. ( Her psychiatrist was later fined and imprisoned for ignoring the danger signs and not ensuring her safety and protection.) Not having seen her other films as writer/director, I remember her mostly though her career as an actress, particularly in five fine films she did for Bertrand Tavernier; and I think of her as someone who, like her one-time flat mates, Isabelle Huppert and Isabelle Adjani, could have become a leading light of post-1970s French cinema. She is extraordinary as one of the sisters in Andrzej Wajda’s  exquisite Young Ladies of Wilko (1979). Her superb acting of the young woman’s breakdown when the hero departs seems to pierce further than mere romantic disappointment: it is more suggestive of someone sustaining an emotional wound that a lifetime will not heal. That kind of hypersensitivity permeates Le Petit Prince a dit, which for me belongs with Rene Clement’s Jeux Interdits and Louis Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants as one of the great French films about childhood and about the unforeseen tragedies that can befall children. Yet as with Christine Pascal, so with the film: it is the beauty that lingers in the memory more than the sadness. What is sad is that a dvd copy of the film is still so hard to obtain. The film should surely be part of a full, widely available retrospective set that commemorates and celebrates the acting and directing career of this remarkably talented artist. I am ready for my second viewing now.
[first published in Sight and Sound, January 2015]