Thoughts on ‘Marguerite et Julien’ (2015)

Anaïs Demoustier and Jérémie Elkaïm in Marguerite et Julien (2015)

Preamble:

I saw Valérie Donzelli’s film at Cannes in 2015. I enjoyed it immensely, but judging from the very muted reaction from the audience in the Salle du du Soixantième, I was in a minority of one. I doubted I’d ever see it again — it’s just one of those movies which can be described as being too French. Anyway, it’s popped up on Mubi (UK) today, and I’d written these notes on the film. It’s definitely worth catching, in my book.

Marguerite et Julien (2015), dir: V. Donzelli

“The best way to avoid sin is to flee temptation.” So says the fearful uncle of Marguerite et Julien, two young aristocratic siblings whose love for one another is steadfast and passionate (as well as illegal).

Separated first by boarding school arrangements, and then an arranged marriage, the pair continue to feel a magnetic pull, and it soon becomes clear that nothing can tear M&J (played by Anaïs Demoustier and Jérémie Elkaïm) apart for too long. Not giving a damn for convention or social norms, they continue to transgress and ultimately decide to make a run for England, where they think they’ll be free from their parents and other authority figures.

Valérie Donzelli’s film is a giddy and perverse Venus wrapped in the divine surrealist furs of Walerian Borowczyk. Indeed, if this was forty years ago, and he somehow had gotten hold of the script, the director might easily have made it. For Marguerite et Julien is a project absolutely suited to his penchant for dreamlike eroticism with lashings of perversity.

Inspired by the real-life case of Marguerite and Julien de Ravalet, who were executed in 1603 on adultery and incest charges, Donzelli has used their story as a sort of alternate take on the famous forbidden romance between medieval philosopher Peter Abelard and his beloved Heloise. This particular take on Marguerite et Julien is sourced from a novel by the late screenwriter, Jean Gruault, and it’s said François Truffaut entertained the idea of making a film from the story in the 1970s, but it never came to pass.

Just as the influence of Borowczyk ensures a classy Euro-smut lineage, Donzelli also doffs her hat to the revolutionary days of the French New Wave. She crams in counter-cinema gestures for all its worth and the sense of playfulness and charming revelling in artifice provides a keen and suitable tribute. The use of modern costumes, props and music also creates an increasingly amusing anachronistic timeline, and brings the film to life in a host of ways that so many stuffy period dramas never dare imagine, let alone execute with such delightful vim.

Marguerite et Julien is likely to annoy anybody not wishing to attune to its erotic dreaminess or love-letter affections to past cinema greats. It’ll no doubt be dismissed as the kind of weirdo arty twaddle that the French excel at from time to time. (All that’s missing is a Serge Gainsbourg song over the end credits, they might sneer.) Yet Donzelli has crafted a really beautiful film born of trangressive origins, and it’s not often one of those comes around.

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