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'Tatie Danielle' Is Better Bitter and Best at Her Worst

March 18, 1993|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lancer who regularly writes about film for The Times Orange County Edition.

Nice Auntie, sweet Auntie . . . no, that's not right. Bad Auntie, mean Auntie, monster Auntie . . . yeah, that's more like it.

In "Tatie Danielle," Auntie Danielle (Tsilla Chelton) stomps all over any preconceptions we might harbor concerning gentle old relatives, smiling, giving and grateful to be living out their fabled golden years. This auntie is hateful, bitter and eager to humiliate anyone she finds in her path. For fun, she visits the garden to grind newly planted pansies into mulch under her nasty little shoes.

Director Etienne Chatiliez's 1991 picture, screening Friday night as part of Golden West College's foreign film series, is a maliciously funny satire, but it's not for anyone who waxes sentimentally about growing old. Tatie Danielle takes the scribe's advice to not go gently into that good night; she's as gentle as toxic waste.

When we first spy her abusing poor Odile (Neige Dolsky), her equally elderly helper, she has the look of an overfed vulture. Tatie Danielle sits in her chair, calculating how to torment Odile, sending her on pointless errands, verbally mocking everything she does, even stealing her puny pocket money. When Odile finally succumbs, dying in an accident that her boss may have had something to do with, we've seen just how despicable someone can get.

That's liberating, in a way. There's nothing to like about this old woman, and Chatiliez and writer Florence Quentin start off steadfastly asking us to hate her. No problem; we can dislike Tatie Danielle but also find a kick or two as she cleverly torments the family of her boobish nephew (Eric Prat) that has taken her in.

The teary wife (Catherine Jacob), with her stupid optimism and belief that old people just need patronizing kindness, is a ready target. So are the kids--two boys, one an infant, the other a teen-ager--who are dismissed as "idiots" by their dear aunt.

Everything gets gloppy, though, when Sandrine (Isabelle Nanty) shows up. Desperate for a break, the family flees to Crete for a vacation, hiring Sandrine to take care of her. It's a match made in hell.

Although much younger, Sandrine has obviously been around and is almost as disappointed and angry as Tatie Danielle. She refuses to take any guff or her tricks (a favorite is pouring water on the bed each morning to make Sandrine think that she'd wet it during the night).

But what starts out as a tug of war turns into mutual respect, even pleasure. Ah, girlfriends, pals. At this warming point, "Tatie Danielle" loses its edge and spirals down into hokum: Tatie Danielle suddenly nice ? Where did that come from?

Still, the movie is mostly refreshing, especially in its unsimplified take on this elderly woman. We are never told just why Tatie Danielle has become such a witch, but we really don't need specifics; just facing the indignities of getting old may be enough to curdle one's spirit.

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