Philippe Muyl's "The Butterfly" discovers as much meaning and emotion as imaginable from a relationship between an elderly man and a little girl. In the process he has written a great role for Michel Serrault, one of the French cinema's stalwart veterans, and an equally irresistible part for the freckle-faced Claire Bouanich. Muyl has not so much played against the inherent sentimentality of a tale about an old man and a young girl as transcended it to evoke with humor, poignancy and even suspense a sense of what is most important in life. As such, "The Butterfly" is an exceptionally satisfying film of much grace and beauty.
Serrault's Julien is a retired watchmaker, a fit, vigorous widower in his 70s who lives in a fine Art Deco apartment house in a charming provincial town. The walls of his spacious, darkish apartment are lined with framed specimens of butterflies, and lepidopterology has become an all-consuming passion. Recently, a young single mother, Isabelle (Nade Dieu), has moved into the building with her 8-year-old daughter, Elsa (Bouanich). Isabelle is so busy working, she has little time for lonely Elsa, who is rebuffed by the self-sufficient, preoccupied Julien.
Typifying Muyl's subtlety, Serrault shows Julien not as just another crotchety old codger but merely possessed of the crustiness of a longtime loner who doesn't want to be bothered by anybody, especially a small child. But the bright, impish Elsa is not easily deterred, so when she learns Julien is taking off for a weeklong expedition in the Alps in search of an exceedingly rare butterfly, she stows away in the back of his car.
When Julien discovers the child's presence, he is understandably less than thrilled and swiftly dials the concierge of his apartment building to explain what has happened. Rather than turning back and thereby losing the chance to catch the butterfly that appears only during an eight-day period at the end of May and the beginning of June, he grudgingly decides to take Elsa along, only to become caught up by his pursuit and unexpected responsibilities.
What Julien doesn't realize is that his cellphone was going dead at the time he placed the call. At just the moment he is beginning to discover the pleasure in introducing a child to the wonders of nature, he and Elsa are becoming the object of a manhunt, with Julien as suspected kidnapper. This becomes a clever way of building tension and concern as the older man and the little girl begin to bond, each discovering in the other an individual in need of loving attention and concern.
Through Julien's reveries and remarks to others the two encounter in the course of the expedition and through Elsa's increasing confidences to Julien, Muyl piece by piece provides backstories for his two characters. The more we learn, the more Muyl emerges as a bold heart-tugger who can get away with laying on the pathos because he balances it always with humor. Muyl knows not only how to build tension and create involvement but how to make them pay off.
In the 50 years since his debut in Henri-Georges Clouzot's classic 1954 classic "Diabolique," Serrault has been a strong, versatile presence on screen, with "The King of Hearts" in the '60s and "La Cage aux Folles" in the '70s and on to the present.
In "The Butterfly," Serrault had the opportunity to illuminate Julien's life so that the film is a portrait of a distinctive character, not just a portrait of an old man. Serrault is fortunate that his leading lady is a gifted young actress who is worthy of him.
And as much as the film focuses on two people, its supporting players, Dieu especially, are no less impressive.
In opening up the wonders of life to Elsa, Julien rediscovers them for himself.
'The Butterfly' MPAA rating: Unrated Times guidelines: Appropriate family fare Michel Serrault...Julien Claire Bouanich...Elsa Nade Dieu...Isabelle A First Run Features release of a Alicéleo/France 2 Cinéma/Rhône-Alpes Cinéma/Gimages Films co-production. Writer-director Philippe Muyl. Producer Patrick Godeau. Executive producer Françoise Galfré. Cinematographer Nicolas Herdt. Editor Mireille Leroy. Music Nicolas Errèra. Costumes Françoise Dubois, Sylvie de Segonzac. Production designer Nikos Meletopoulos. Running time: 1 hour, 19 minutes. Exclusively at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.