Film Review: ‘Marie’s Story’
VARIETY August 14, 2014 | By Peter Debruge
In the tradition of 'The Miracle Worker,' this compelling French drama depicts a nun's efforts to communicate with a deaf and blind 14-year-old.
Born five years after Helen Keller in Vertou, France, Marie Heurtin faced many of the same challenges, growing up deaf and blind in a society whose instinct was to institutionalize such girls. “Marie’s Story,” therefore, is not so different from Keller’s, amounting to a French “Miracle Worker” with the bonus miracle that it was a nun who accomplished the inspirational breakthrough. Acquired by Film Movement in advance of its Locarno Film Festival premiere, this compelling 19th-century drama offers slight but satisfying variations on one of American drama’s best-loved tales, spelling awards heft abroad and sleeper potential Stateside.
Whereas every American child knows how Keller learned to communicate, thanks to her autobiography and the 1962 film, Heurtin’s story isn’t widely known in France — nor is the unfortunate meme of off-color jokes schoolchildren make concerning Keller’s twin handicaps. That should make for a relatively pure viewing experience abroad, where this traditionally plotted tearjerker won’t seem so familiar to audiences of all ages. In the U.S., meanwhile, there’s still the question of what word will inspire Heurtin’s breakthrough, the way “water” did for Keller.
The more immediate reference for Gallic viewers will be Francois Truffaut’s “The Wild Child,” which deals with the taming of a feral kid found living alone in the woods. Played by convincingly brutish newcomer Ariana Rivoire, Marie is 14 years old when she arrives at the nun-run Larnay Institute, a convent in Poitiers where deaf girls — and those with various other ailments — are routinely left by their parents to learn sign language and become sisters. Filthy, disheveled and understandably terrified, Marie runs from these strangers and climbs the nearest tree, from which mild-mannered Sister Marguerite (Isabelle Carre) is chosen to bring her down.
Though not deaf herself, Marguerite has a vision of how she might be able to help Marie, hypothesizing that if she can adapt sign language in such a way that Marie can feel the words, the girl will be able to understand their significance. In practice, Marguerite’s plan proves harder than she expected, since Marie thrashes violently around anyone other than her parents and clutches a potentially dangerous pocket knife (her favorite possession) more tightly than most girls would their dolls. Add to this the convent’s stereotypically stern Mother Superior character (Brigitte Catillon, in stiff-spined Maggie Smith mode), who skeptically yields to Marguerite’s obstinacy, but worries that the challenge will threaten her already delicate health.
Though Marguerite’s mortality becomes a major focus of the film’s last act, director Jean-Pierre Ameris spares audiences the Hollywood approach of telegraphing a terminal illness by a gradually worsening cough, as so brilliantly parodied by Alec Baldwin in the “Mastering the Art of Foreshadowing Your Character’s Death” sketch on “Saturday Night Live.” Instead, the script remains resolutely focused on Marie’s slow transformation, including such feel-good milestones as brushing her hair, giving herself a bath and trading her soiled dress for a cleanly pressed school uniform. Only after the point that Marie grasps the concept of language does the story return to Marguerite’s condition, skipping over most of the reading, writing and signing lessons to depict the key moment when the terminally ill nun tries to explain such abstract concepts as death, heaven and God.
At the risk of sounding crass, Marguerite takes a taxingly long time to succumb, while Ameris and co-writer Philippe Blasband try to engineer the most wrenching climax possible. Still, some of the pic’s best moments occur in this final stretch, including an unexpectedly frank exchange with the Mother Superior in which she admits no amount of faith makes dying easy, and a second breakthrough with Marie, where she comes to understand the concept of music by pressing herself up against a piano. Until this moment, the pic’s low-key score has been kept to an absolute minimum — part of an intuitively conceptual sound design that grows gradually more robust as Marie’s sensory awareness expands. Early on, she experiences the world by touch, absorbing the sun on her skin and feeling the faces of strangers with her hands. By the end, music has become part of her world, giving the film license to reinforce the sentiment with stirring strings.
A quarter-century ago, such an assured, emotionally satisfying French offering as this could have done significant business in the States, the way films like “Jean de Florette” once did. These days, foreign films tend to require either esoteric critical support or an edgy genre hook, and yet, “Marie’s Story” embodies many of the qualities that Hollywood still strives to deliver in native projects, especially as concerns leading lady Carre, who may not reach Anne Bancroft’s heights, but plays her determined character with moving obstinacy and grace.
SCREEN August 10, 2014 | By Dan Fainaru
Jean-Pierre Ameris’ new film reads pretty much like a softer, religious version of The Miracle Worker and while never attempting to match Arthur Penn’s tense dramatic punch, he prefers a far more pastoral, less methodical approach, relying to a great extent on the performances of Isabelle Carre and young newcomer Ariana Rivoire, whom he found in an institute for the deaf, where she was still enrolled while shooting the film.
Marie’s Story (Marie Heurtin) is inspired as much by the story of Marie Heurtin, a 10 year-old deaf, mute and blind girl educated at the Larnay Institute near Poitiers, in France, at the end of the 19th century as by the similar, but far better known case, of Helen Keller,
The Larnay Institute, at that time a religious convent run by “The Sisters of Wisdom” nuns, was dedicated to the education of deaf and mute children, but when Heurtin’s parents brought their daughter Marie (Rivoire) in she was first turned down since her blindness prevented the classic use of sign language and there seemed to be no other apparent way for the nuns to communicate with her.
Thanks to the insistence of Sister Marguerite (Isabelle Carre), who volunteered to dedicate herself exclusively to the girl, and the faith she deployed despite the repeated failures of all her early efforts to break through the barriers separating them, Marie was not only accepted but, in the course of time and after many setbacks, became fully conversant in sign language, mastered the Braille alphabet, learned to use a typewriter, to play dominoes, to sew, knit and eventually grow into a self-sufficient young woman.
Though a graphic portrait of the method used by Sister Marguerite was published over a hundred years ago by Louis Arnould in a book entitled Soul In Prison, Ameris prefers to dwell in detail only on a single significant stage in the process, teaching her pupil to use sign language For the rest, the script prefers to imply that it is only through painstaking patience, utter devotion and an enormous amount of faith, that Sister Marguerite, despite the declining state of her own health, finally broke through the wall of silence separating Marie from the rest of the world.
The first part looks almost irritatingly familiar in its account of miracles that remain a bit too intangible for comfort, but once these miracles are satisfactorily established, Ameris seems to be far more comfortable dealing with Marie’s growing attachment for her tutor, the crisis erupting when Sister Marguerite is sent up for a cure in the mountains without Marie being told about it and in the later stages when the girl has to face and accept the concept of death.
Carre - who has acted for Ameris before - and Rivoire, who bravely holds her own against her experienced partner, finally get a chance to shine in the film’s later stages after giving up their wrestling contests, which fill up many of the film’s early scenes.
Bound to be tagged an inspirational tale of unfaltering faith and a serious candidate for every Ecumenical prize on sight, there is only one serious question which remains unanswered after the final credits: what is the meaning of the Jewish folk music played at the end over a visit to a Catholic cemetery. Is this a mystic message that needs to be unraveled?
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