Friday October 15, 1999
Cedric Kahn's relentless "L'Ennui" is such a rigorous exploration of sexual obsession that it proves to be a most demanding film. Virtually devoid of eroticism and sensuality, it depicts with the utmost realism a 17-year-old girl and a fortysomething philosophy professor engaging frequently in raw, intense sex that leaves the girl content and the man craving for much more in the way of fulfillment.
Life has turned sour for Charles Berling's Martin. He and his sophisticated wife Sophie (Arielle Dombasle) have split up some six months earlier. Teaching no longer gives him pleasure or meaning, and he can't get started on the book he means to write. He hasn't made love since his marriage broke up.
One aimless night he wanders into a tawdry bar where a doorman starts beating up an older man (Robert Kramer, the noted independent filmmaker) when he can't pay for his drinks. Martin comes to the man's rescue and in short order learns that he is a painter whose passion for his teenage model Cecilia (Sophie Guillemin) proves fatal mere hours after their meeting. Martin is immediately intrigued and swiftly replaces the painter in Cecilia's life.
With a lush body and a doll-like face, Cecilia, whose maddening simplicity is her strength, combines a robust sexual appetite with minimal personality. Although not stupid, she is resolutely unreflective and not curious. She says she loves Martin and may mean it, but she's too obdurate by nature for Martin to ever possess her. Her implacable ordinariness provides Martin with a challenge that only heightens her attraction for him, driving this totally self-absorbed and neurotic intellectual to the brink of madness.
That she is also involved with an actor more her age gets the instantly jealous Martin really teetering on the brink. It's not that Cecilia is manipulative--in fact she accommodates herself well to so possessive a lover--but that Martin, in his despair and desperation craves from her the kind of rapture that is beyond the teenager's depth. Cecilia seems lacking in capacity as well as inclination.
Since the nature of the glum, complex Martin and the stolid, uncomplicated Cecilia's relationship, as well as the radical differences in their temperaments and intellects are clear from the start, "L'Ennui" becomes grueling to watch, even as it commands respect for its uncompromising, clear-eyed perspective. Even so, Berling and Guillemin are remarkably selfless and authentic in their portrayals, and "L'Ennui, adapted from a vintage Alberto Moravia novel, rewards the patient with an ending that strikes just the right note.
(Note: In 1964, the same novel was reworked unsuccessfully as "The Empty Canvas," in which painter Horst Buchholz was obsessed with model Catherine Spaak; Bette Davis, no less, played Buchholz's mother.)
L'Ennui (Boredom), 1999. Unrated. A Phaedra Cinema presentation of a co-production of Gemini Films and IMA Films, with the participation of Canal Plus and CNC. Director Cedric Kahn. Producer Paulo Branco. Screenplay by Kahn and Laurence Ferreira Barbosa; based on the novel "La Noia" by Alberto Moravia. Cinematographer Pascal Marti. Editor Yann Dedet. Costumes Francoise Clavel. Production designer Francois Abelanet. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes. Forest Whitaker as Ghost Dog. John Tormey as Louie. Sonny Valerio as Cliff Gorman. Frank Minucci as Big Angie. Richard Portnow as Handsome Frank. Tricia Vessey as Louise Vargo. Henry Silva as Ray Vargo. Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich. Albert Finney as Ed Masry. Aaron Eckhart as George. Marg Helgenberger as Donna Jensen. Cherry Jones as Pamela Duncan. Peter Coyote as Kurt Potter. Shane West as Ryan. Jodi Lyn O'Keefe as Ashley. Marla Sokoloff as Maggie. Richard Schiff as Gym coach. Aaron Paul as Floyd. 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