There are only a handful of film actors working today that can legitimately lay claim to greatness. Actors whose breadth of work is intriguing, diverse, and defies simple classification. Actors whose talent courts not only critical praise, but, also public respect and admiration. Actors who move beyond mere performance and transcend into artistry. Such talent is rare and may often be eclipsed by the bright lights of ordinary celebrity, but the contribution these men and women bring to the art and craft of cinema is immeasurable.
By now the living greats are familiar to even the most casual moviegoer. Jack Nicholson? Clearly. Anthony Hopkins? Definitely. Meryl Streep? Without doubt. Isabelle Huppert? Isabelle Who?? While American audiences may not reflexively nominate Huppert for such a distinction, there is little debate among the world’s cineastes that this incomparable French actress, and her incredible body of work, will forever be enshrined in the grand pantheon of cinema history.
Huppert is that rare actor who can, in the course of a blink or the extended seconds of a gaze, convey not only a character’s thoughts but, also, their entire life’s history. So powerful is her talent that she doesn’t so much ‘act’ as she does ‘embody’. It is a testament to Huppert’s prodigious skill as an artist that even in films that fail her—as is the case here with La Vie Promise—she manages to shine with luminous distinction.
In La Vie Promise Huppert takes on the role of Sylvia, an abused and troubled prostitute willfully trying to make an uncomplicated life for herself in Nice. Her hardened, forcible indifference is both a cover for protection and an ineffective blanket that keeps her shielded, yes, but she s always cold and isolated. You are never quite sure if Sylvia’s difficult personality is a product of her troubled life or vice versa.
The re-emergence of her 14-year-old daughter, Laurence, (Maud Forget) – who has just run away from her foster home and is desperately searching for maternal love – sets about a series of events that force Sylvia to turn back and examine her life. Sylvia’s stubbornness has clearly extended to Laurence and the young girl refuses to leave her biological mother alone. During a violent confrontation between Sylvia and her pimp, Laurence impulsively stabs the man. Fearful for their safety, mother and daughter are forced to leave Nice and take to the road.
Sylvia, with Laurence in tow, sets out in search of her former husband and her 8-year-old son. Their journey northward both separates, and eventually reconnects, this mother and daughter duo. Along the way, they (separately) meet Joshua (Pascal Greggory), a mysterious and seemingly benevolent car thief and ex-convict. Joshua not only helps reunite mother and daughter, but also he agrees to transport Sylvia to the bucolic home of her ex-husband and young son. Their travels and the inevitable bumps of the road take a toll not just on Sylvia and Laurence but, also, on the film itself.
At its heart La Vie Promise is fundamentally a road movie and, unfortunately, comes loaded with the baggage that so plagues such genre films. Despite Huppert’s commendable performance this film sinks under the weight of derivative characters, contrived and overly convenient plot points, and simplistic themes. Sylvia’s journey is met with too many unbelievable moments of serendipity and resolved with such a forced ease that the delicate texturing the film tries to convey never materializes.
Forced, flowery imagery and the treacle use of pop music only further highlight the inconsistencies of this film. The lush, expansive nature of the French countryside, with which director Olivier Dahan and his cinematographer Alex Lamarque lovingly shoot La Vie Promise, is beautiful. However, it is so jarringly incongruous with the raw immediacy through which the protagonist, Sylvia, views the world that the intended dramatic juxtaposition is rendered dull and ineffective.
Dahan’s use of music throughout the film also serves to undermine the tone of La Vie Promise. Individually, the film’s songs are pleasant and melodic, but the filmmaker’s repeated employment of country and pop music to underscore the emotional impact of a scene works to weaken the overall feel of the picture. Such poetic shortcuts are cheap and ultimately achieve nothing except audience disinterest.
A special credit must be acknowledged to Huppert who, despite the obvious failings of the film itself, is still able to instill a ferocious vitality into the character of Sylvia. With a brashness and delicate subtlety that never seem incompatible, she has managed to make this otherwise one-dimensional portrait of a troubled prostitute an intriguing character. Unfortunately, though, the strength of Huppert’s immense acting talent simply cannot sustain the weight of so many errors of narration, direction, and writing.