This is a film full of good intentions. In his first full-length movie, Laurent de Bartillat has assembled a top-class cast, led by the wonderfully versatile Sylvie Testud (how many other young actresses are willing to be portrayed in unglamorous roles?) as Lucie, an art history student who becomes obsessed with the life and paintings of the 18th-century French artist Antoine Watteau.
Spectators get the chance to study many of Watteau’s most intriguing paintings along with the student and her gruff thesis advisor, played by Jean-Pierre Marielle. One scene in which teacher and pupil look ever more closely at a painting, focusing eventually on the eye of a donkey in the corner, is both illuminating and moving.
The film is neatly structured, with parallels between the modern-day characters in the central story and various people portrayed in the paintings. One character, Vincent, a deaf and dumb performance artist, is reminiscent of Watteau’s enigmatic Pierrot figure, while Lucie’s mother is an actress, just as Watteau’s possible love-interest was an actress at the Comédie Française.
The movie has one major, sadly fatal flaw: it is fundamentally undramatic. No amount of ponderous music (and there is a great deal) can lend excitement to a decidedly dull narrative thread. Many lengthy scenes show Lucie staring at a computer screen or sitting alone in the reading room of the old Bibliothèque Nationale (even though nobody has been allowed in there for years) in her quest to discover the identity of the mystery woman who reappears in different guises in Watteau’s oeuvre. When a major climax of the film depends on her discovering that some buildings featured in Watteau’s works can still be found in modern Paris, we realize how desperately the director is searching for anything that might be of interest.
Yet, if the film succeeds in making people more attentive to Watteau’s work (which it surely will), then it will have served a purpose. The problem is that cinema-goers are expecting some kind of suspense and narrative thrust, not a semi-fictional lecture in art history that is (as we are told in the final film credits) “freely inspired by Watteau’s life and works.”