Once the movie was over, I understood, a bit late, that I had projected myself in the character of Sandrine. A girl who wants to achieve her dream—for me it was making movies—who tears herself from her original environment and finds herself all alone.
—Christian Carion, “Back to the Roots”
The Girl From Paris follows Sandrine (Mathilde Seigner), just turned 30 when she decides to quit her job as an internet instructor and enroll in agricultural school in order to pursue her lifelong dream, to be a farmer. When her classes are finished, she purchases a farm from Adrien (Michel Serrault), who is reluctantly facing retirement. The catch is that the home his nephew is preparing for him isn’t ready yet, so Adrien has to stay on the farm for 18 months.
Their relationship follows a typical trajectory. Sandrine, having left behind a good job, a beautiful city, her mother, and her boyfriend Gérard (Frédéric Pierrot), determinedly takes on her new career. At first she seems unaffected by her solitary lifestyle, until Gérard arrives, hoping to win her back. With his presence, her home turns almost vibrant with life, now lit up in the evening, with music from the stereo pouring out the windows. Too stubborn to admit her loneliness, she doesn’t reveal she’s glad he came until he’s about to leave. Sandrine’s determination is admirable, even to the bitter Adrien, who defends her in a local pub. Sandrine, however, rejects any support, from Adrien or Gerard.
Widowed for 10 years, Adrien is also lonely, and now he realizes that he’s not quite ready to leave the only life he has ever known. Watching Sandrine through his kitchen window, he starts muttering to himself, noting what he perceives to be her mistakes. In occasional meetings with his friend Jean (Jean-Paul Rousillon), Adrien articulates his misgivings. He believes the farm is his, and expects Sandrine eventually to give up. He simply can’t accept that his land and livestock are in the hands of another. To give up the farm means acknowledging he’s entered the last phase of his life. He fears death, having witnessed his wife’s long, painful passing. In one poignant scene, he goes to church to ask God the favor of taking him quickly, so he won’t have to endure her fate.
The film’s central tension, then, is more generational than personal. Technically savvy Sandrine transforms a building on her new property into a hotel and starts attracting customers through a website, thus turning the working farm into a kitschy attraction. Adrien is offended by tourists observing his lifestyle as an idyllic curiosity.
It’s not surprising that the generational gap and details of farming are so well observed, given Carion’s own background. In the DVD’s excellent half-hour featurette, “Back to the Roots,” he revisits the farms that served as sets for the film, discussing the process of the bringing this story to the screen. he says that his father was the template for Adrien, and Carion worked on a farm for many years before turning to filmmaking. He articulates his sense of the connections between his two careers, describing both as isolated professions: “It’s true that when you’re a director, you’re alone. Completely alone. Even if your crew is very attentive and very supportive… it’s still your personal story, your emotions, your desires, your dream. It’s really strange because sometimes you’re surrounded with a lot of people… you’re very much in demand, but at the same time, you’re alone.”
The Girl From Paris underlines this sentiment, detailing the ways that farming is lonely and difficult. Carion is clearly familiar with the vocation, translating the difficulties of farming in images that are sometimes quite graphic (for instance, animals being killed). The film is less convincing when depicting Sandrine and Adrien’s passive-aggressive interactions. Their refusals to speak to one another make for long silences that are frustrating for this viewer. And yet, at last, their separate loneliness gives way to mutual respect. As Sadnrine explores Adrien’s scrapbooks and photo albums, she learns the history of the farm and in turn, he comes to appreciate her dedication, even in extreme weather, to farming her land. As they come to understand one another, the changes in their lives don’t seem so different.