Cheerfully nihilistic, Benoît Jacquot’s Villa Amalia stars Isabelle Huppert as a pianist reinventing her life from scratch on the coast of Naples. O sole mio.
Sweet Nothings by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Isabelle Huppert is as tough as nails; the perfect choice for a heroine combining glamour, guts and grit. So it’s a real shock when already in the first reel we see her character fragile and bruised. After discovering her husband kissing another woman on the steps of a villa in Choisy Le Roi, Ann emits an existential scream worthy of Edvard Munch. Betrayed and confused she flounders, but from the void she sees an opportunity to set herself free, a small rip in her future’s fabric that she’s determined to tear wider and wider.
It’s clear Ann has done this kind of thing before, changing her name from Eliane Hidelstein and fleeing her family in Brittany for the Conservatoire at the first opportunity. Refusing to bear her neglectful father’s name, she becomes Ann Hidden, a surname that’s less clumsy in French but just as symbolic. The real Ann, she feels, is hidden somewhere deep within, beneath a thick skin of habit, comfort and expectation. So when she decides to flay herself clean, it makes for utterly spellbinding viewing.
It’s a fertile coincidence that Ann meets her old seaside playmate Georges Roehl just as she discovers Thomas en flagrant délit. Softspoken, grieving for a mother and a lover, Georges is everything Ann’s not; open, sociable and happy. Ann may be a successful music editor, burgeoning composer and chic Parisienne, but she wants out. So unbeknownst to her partner of twelve years, she gives up her name, her music and sells her sleek white apartment and Steinway pianos – after a valedictory tinkle on the ivories. And it’s not just her identity she’s deconstructing, it’s her personality too. She’s learning to say no again – “No, you can’t come before 11. I’ll be sleeping.” And symbolically, her rejection of husband, music and church, marked by an upturned chair and a sharp exit. She’s emptying the palaces to start again. Ground zero. Her one anchor is Georges. His business card becomes her rebirth certificate, taking on his bank account, his name and life. And when she bids farewell to her estranged mother, she looks out from her childhood bedroom onto a Breton horizon – a grey sky leaning on a silver sea. It’s an abstract greyness that marks her arrival at nothingness. Now it’s time to put the colour back in.
Fleeing from her old life, she wanders Europe abandoning bags, hair and clothes like a wanted fugitive, shedding skin after skin in search of a new identity that fits. Crossing the Alpine border into Italy by foot (no paper trail), she quickly finds her home on an island near Naples in a derelict red ruin, Amalia’s villa. Despite recurring nightmares of an abandoned past, Ann finds the space in this womb with a view to mould herself anew. She develops an unlikely rapport with a gruff contadina, uncharacteristically bellowing back with a new Italian passion. She becomes Anna – colourful, Italian-speaking and free.
With its focus on a changing female identity as well as the rocky coastline and spangled seas, Villa Amalia is reminiscent of Antonioni’s L’Avventura, modernised for a powerful 21st century woman, not afraid of saying no to the wrong man. And as she takes to the sea, symbol of her spotless identity, she plunges its depths and swims so far from shore she has to be rescued by Giulia and her one-time boyfriend Carlo. Enchanted by her face from another world, Giulia takes a shine to Ann, and the two begin an easy romance. But before the final reel is out, Ann is recalled to France to attend her mother’s funeral. And after a brief reencounter with her father, she realises her flight response is too similar to that of her absent father – another itinerant musician – and decides to live again and leave her arcadian limbo for good.
Loosely based on the novel by Prix Goncourt winning writer Pascal Quignard, Villa Amalia differs quite substantially from its source. Gone the affair with an Italian doctor and the daughter’s death which unravels Ann’s Ischian idyll. Georges’ illness is marginalised here, his death providing the book’s finale, presumably of AIDS. Jacquot’s changes puts Ann firmly centre-stage, neatly encapsulating in her move from bored wife to curious lesbian her triumphant and total transformation. While the film treats homosexuality as a fairly redundant plot device, its insistent spectre throughout Villa Amalia makes it difficult to believe there’s not more to it than that. The film’s most positive relationships are, after all, gay. And with queer-bashing, AIDS grief and heterosexuals on the turn, there’s an unstraight story desperate to come out. But Villa Amalia is surprisingly inspirational and optimistic, a crash and burn course in saying no and righting the wrongs of the present.
Villa Amalia is released in the UK on 25th June 2010.