Claude Miller's "La Petite Lili," an adroit exploration of love and ambition, life and art, may be based on Chekhov's "The Seagull," but with its coda set five years in the future, it ends up seeming lots more like Vincente Minnelli's classic 1952 take on Hollywood, "The Bad and the Beautiful": No matter how much Sturm und Drang has occurred between film people, they will come together for the sake of the chance of making a good movie.
"La Petite Lili" itself is pretty good, but it is also assured to the point of glibness. Its people are nowhere near as memorable or involving as Lana Turner's unstable star ("The Beautiful") and Kirk Douglas' ruthless producer ("The Bad"), but it's worth a look for cineastes.
Moody and impassioned aspiring filmmaker Julien Marceaux (Robinson Stevenin) has invited family and friends to watch his experimental video short starring his sexy lover Lili (Ludivine Sagnier of "Swimming Pool"). The setting is what could be an abandoned chapel on the ancient, elegant lakeside Marceaux estate. In the audience are Julien's mother Mado (Nicole Garcia), a famous actress, and her lover Brice (Bernard Giraudeau), a top director; Julien's Uncle Simon (Jean-Pierre Marielle), a 70-year old philosophical charmer who hasn't done anything with his life but is a warm, witty solid family retainer; and Jeanne-Marie (Julie Depardieu), who is in love with Julien, who barely notices she exists, so enamored is he with Lili.
The glimpses of Julien's work show Lili as an earth mother figure reciting a poetic musing on the inevitable mortality of all living things. The viewers of the video-within-the film don't get to see enough of it to judge Julien's work, but what is unmistakable is that the camera loves Lili -- she is positively radiant. Fidgety from the start, Mado explodes that her son's effort is nothing but "a provincial Bergman rip-off" and arrogantly assumes everyone is as bored as she is. One who is not, however, is Brice, who sees his younger self in Julien, even though Julien loathes Brice for his mainstream success and asserts that his latest film with Mado is his mother's worst. It's unclear why Mado reacts so violently to her son's work -- it may well be that she feels threatened by and jealous of Lili's youthful glow, even though she is gracious to the younger woman.
The key point is that Lili realizes that the impact of her image on the screen has not been lost on Brice, and throwing her love for Julien aside, the ambitious young actress sets her cap for the handsome, well-established director. Perhaps Jeanne-Marie will have her chance with Julien after all.
In the wake of considerable emotional wreckage, "La Petite Lili" moves ahead five years to find a matured Julien preparing to direct an autobiographical feature in which he has persuaded his mother and Brice to play themselves while Lili, now a big star, has persuaded, with no small effort, Julien to let her play herself, with Michel Piccoli playing Simon.
"La Petite Lili" ends on a note that is highly civilized in the sophisticated French manner -- and perhaps a little too neat, even though Miller does evoke the redemptive power of art.
'La Petite Lili'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Some nudity, sexuality, adult themes
Robinson Stevenin...Julien Marceaux
Nicole Garcia...Mado Marceaux
A First Run Features release of a Les Filmes de la Boissiere (France)/Cinemaginaire (Canada) co-production in association with Les Films Alain Sarde, France 3. Director Claude Miller. Producer Christine Gozlan. Executive producer Daniel Louis. Screenplay Julien Boivent, Miller; based on "The Seagull" by Anton Chekhov. Cinematographer Gerard de Battista. Editor Veronique Lange. Music Arvo Part, others. Costumes Jacqueline Bouchard. Art director Jean-Pierre Kohut-Svelko. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
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