At first glance, there may be nothing necessarily wrong with Antoine Barraud’s third feature film, Madeleine Collins; on the contrary, it quickly evokes a certain appeal through its bizarre, mystery-induced opening. From the immense suave atmosphere to Gordon Spooner’s gorgeously sleek cinematography, and indeed, the presence of the Belgian diva-actress, Virginie Efira as the main character, the film has enough to pique one’s curiosity all the way throughout. Madeleine Collins follows a bourgeois woman, Judith Fauvet, who whether out of midlife boredom, lustful cacoethes, a mix of both, or any other indescribable reason, adopts multiple identities, as a wife and a mistress, a mother, and a successful translator, and so on. In a constant oscillation between two countries (France and Switzerland), two men — her respectable, orchestra conductor husband, Melvil (Bruno Salomone) and a young, widowed lover, Abdel (Quim Gutiérrez) — and two different homes, Judith seems to be lost in the translation between these two worlds; metaphorically speaking, she struggles to find the most suitable equivalent for herself in either. Her search for individuality and a sense of belonging, through repetitively faking and dissimulating her identity (going by various masks and names: Judith, Margot, or Madeleine), leads to a point where she ends up, as she confesses to Abdel’s young daughter, Ninon (Loïse Benguerel), as a “monster.”
The idea of “monstrosity” has fueled Barraud’s work, most evidently in his previous film Portrait of the Artist (Le dos rouge) where a filmmaker (played by Bertrand Bonello) happens to be excessively obsessed with the idea of seeking a painting that can simultaneously crystallize both the power and beauty of monsters. Efira’s strong presence as Judith, similarly, perfectly embodies a monster whose essence borders on an eccentric power, inner fragility, and evident pulchritude. But despite all the film’s interesting concepts, its stylishly chic visuals, and Efira’s irrefutably captivating performance, Madeleine Collins for the most part lacks the intellectual intensity and emotional oomph it truly needs. Part of this scarcity is due to Barraud’s insufficient directorial strategy, wherein he deliberately handles everything in a monotonously tonal, typically vapid, and overly taut fashion (or more accurately, dry and sterile formality.) Even when the film seems to be playing out some sort of subtle, absurdist dark comedy, its overall execution dumbs down this aspect by a gross margin. It’s as if that in this half-psychological drama, half-enigmatic existential thriller, the aftermath of its shockingly ambiguous opening is heavily left for the narrative to fumble over, whose series of twists and discoveries merely puzzles, without absorbing greater depth or dimension in terms of Judith’s dilemmatic situations, emotions, and her relationships with other characters. In other words, the complexity that one usually admires in the oeuvres of masters like Alfred Hitchcock, Luis Buñuel, or Claude Chabrol — who ostensibly are among Barraud’s and possibly, his scriptwriting collaborator Héléna Klotz’s main source of inspiration (at least, the name of Vertigo’s Judy/Madeleine character boldly resonates here) — remains starkly absent; the denouement of Madeleine Collins more or less condenses much of its complicated, embryonic ambitions into a middlebrow soap opera, full of Desperate Housewives-y tenor and flavor.
DIRECTOR: Antoine Barraud; CAST: Virginie Efira, Bruno Salomone, Jacqueline Bisset; DISTRIBUTOR: Greenwich Entertainment; IN THEATERS / STREAMING: August 18 / August 29; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 47 min.
Originally published as part of Venice International Film Festival — Dispatch 2.