La Vie Promise (2002)

Kate Williams

Despite Huppert’s commendable performance this film sinks under the weight of derivative characters, contrived and overly convenient plot points, and simplistic themes.

La Vie Promise

Director: Olivier Dahan
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Pascal Greggory, Maud Forget, André Marcon, Fabienne Babe
Distributor: First Run Features
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Empire Pictures
First date: 2002
US DVD Release Date: 2007-02-20

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.