Following the travails of a middle-aged woman looking for new purpose after the death of her husband, Ludovic Bergery’s Margaux Hartmann is a gentle, unassuming drama featuring a remarkable lead performance by Emmanuelle Béart. Margaux, a relatively reserved, even quiet woman in her late 50s, has decided to attend grad school, studying German while living with her sister-in-law and passively hoping that some new meaning or direction will present itself. Bergery mines some mild discomfort from this older woman frantically scrambling to get to class on time, then finding herself surrounded by students significantly younger than she; although, to the director’s credit, this is never played for cheap comedy or facile empowerment fantasy. Instead, Margaux tentatively makes friends, and even catches the eye of one of her professors (an earthy, laidback Tibo Vandenborre).
Far from any “Margaux gets her groove back” inflection, the film is a largely somber affair, with an autumnal sky casting a gentle gray hue over the proceedings. Margaux begins spending time with a young gay man, Aurelien (Vincent Dedienne), intrigued by his love life and gradually revealing information from her past to him — married at only 20 years old, to an older man, her union was comfortable but sexless for many years before her husband’s death. She tentatively embarks on new romantic adventures, but her awkward attempts at intimacy with the professor don’t go well. She eventually finds carnal attraction with an anonymous man on a dating website, although it too ends poorly. But she perseveres, and Bergery captures her journey with an unobtrusive naturalism, eschewing overt stylization for a more low-key, subtle approach. The camera is tethered to Margaux’s perspective, and Béart ably carries the film. It’s impossible not to at least partially conflate the actress with her role here; after all, it’s no secret that the film industry, in America and abroad, has little use for women over a certain age, and Béart is no longer the sex symbol she once was (which is only to comment on the way age is understood in the industry). Margaux’s journey, embarking on a second chapter of sorts, is Béart’s as well, settling into new kinds of roles that can make use of her considerable skill. Margaux is no neurotic mess, but Béart manages to convey a sense of mild insecurity as she fumbles through new experiences. Not everything is easy, but she, as we all must, perseveres.
Published as part of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2021 — Dispatch 1.