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Movie Review

Strength of Love at the Heart of Intimate 'La Separation'

October 23, 1998|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Isabelle Huppert and Daniel Auteuil, two of the French cinema's most accomplished actors, are teamed--surprisingly for the first time--in Christian Vincent's astute "La Separation." It is a film in which the full range of love and pain are expressed with an appreciation for nuance and subtlety and viewed with a sense of detachment and compassion.

French films have been relatively scarce in recent years, so much so that the arrival of this beautiful, harrowing and completely captivating film--four years after its completion, but never mind that--is cause to reflect on some of the classic elements of French movies: their quality of intimacy, sense of everyday life (more often than not lived in a tasteful if smallish Paris apartment), the presence and value of children, and, of course, the paramount importance they place on passionate love.

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In a sense you could say that we've seen "La Separation" many times before, but the French have a special gift in making every relationship, every love story, seem unique and important.

When we learn well into the film that Huppert's patrician Anne and Auteuil's tousled, unshaven Pierre are not married it's not surprising, for that too is commonplace in French pictures. However, they are in need of a marriage counselor for sure--but like lots of otherwise intelligent people in emotional crisis, it apparently never occurs to them to seek professional help.

What has happened to Anne and Pierre, who have a 15-month-old son, after several years together is familiar enough. They're not paying enough attention to each other, and as a result, they've started getting on the other's nerves. They're finding it impossible to let the least little disagreement pass. In such an atmosphere it does not shock us to hear Anne announce, "I've fallen in love with another man," although the news devastates Pierre, who has been feeling that he is no longer important to her. She explains, in time-honored words, "You wouldn't listen to me. . . . I met a man who listens to me, who's interested in me and pays attention to me."

Where Anne is different from many other women in a similar situation is that she does not want to leave Pierre or want him to leave her. Anne sees her romance (with a man unknown to both us and Pierre, who does not want to know his identity) as transient, yet of course there's no way of knowing when or if it really will ebb. The question thus becomes whether or not Pierre will be strong enough to weather the storm--and whether or not he'll be able to forgive her.

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Huppert and Auteuil work deeply from within, creating a foundation for the formidable command of expression, gesture and movement that allows them to act with the utmost naturalness and spontaneity. Based on writer-actor Dan Franck's acclaimed 1991 novel, "La Separation" has a masculine point of view yet is as fair-minded toward Anne as it is toward Pierre.

Neither Vincent, best known for "La Discrete," nor Huppert is afraid to show Anne as unsympathetically cool to Pierre's pain. No one is denying that she has placed Pierre in a difficult, excruciatingly painful position, for he clearly loves her deeply. Yet we can see in Pierre an unfortunate tendency to bungle those opportunities to reach through to Anne when they come along.

"La Separation" has been filmed with that rich yet clear, natural light that make so many French films glow. It has style, economy and understatement in dealing with the contradictions of the heart, traits that have always characterized the best of French cinema.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: no sex but complex adult themes.

'La Separation'

Isabelle Huppert: Anne

Daniel Auteuil: Pierre

Jerome Deschamps: Victor

Karen Viard: Claire

A Phaedra Cinema release of a Claude Berri presentation of a co-production of Renn Productions/France 2 Cinema/D.A. Films/C.M.V. Productions, with the participation of Canal Plus. Director Christian Vincent. Executive producer Pierre Grunstein. Screenplay, adaptation and dialogue by Dan Franck and Vincent. Based on the novel "Separation" by Franck. Cinematographer Denis Lenoir. Editor Francois Ceppi. Costumes Sylvie Gautrelet. Music "Goldberg Variations" by Johann Sebastian Bach, interpreted by Glenn Gould. Set designer Christian Vallerin. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes.

* Exclusively at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869; and the Town Center, Bristol at Anton, South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa, (714) 751-4184 or (714) 777-FILM (No. 086).

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