The shadow of "The Miracle Worker" clings inescapably to "Marie's Story." At the center of writer-director Jean-Pierre Améris' uneven version of true events is 14-year-old Marie Heurtin, born deaf and blind in late 19th century France.
That makes her a contemporary of Helen Keller, and her tough road to self-sufficiency parallels Keller's in crucial ways. Like her famous American counterpart, Marie learns how to communicate thanks to an innovative and indefatigable teacher.
Here that teacher is a young nun, played with angelic resolve by Isabelle Carré. She and first-time actress Ariana Rivoire, who is deaf, bring a complex intimacy to their characters' relationship.
Recognizing "an imprisoned soul," as she expresses it in her diary, Sister Marguerite feels called to help the feral Marie the instant she arrives at the Larnay Institute, a convent devoted to the education of deaf girls. Her attempts to teach sign language, manners and hygiene to the wild child devolve into knockdown, drag-outs — no surprise to anyone familiar with Anne Sullivan's work with Keller. The movie's only suspense concerns which signed word will spark Marie's lightbulb moment.
At its strongest, the film captures the sensory aspects of Marie's experience with an intensity that can be lyrical (her ecstatic response to nature) or unnerving (her tactile and olfactory exploration of everything and everyone she encounters). At its most provocative, it suggests a tension between spirit and flesh in the nun's maternal feelings. Rather than examine that friction, Améris pushes the narrative in predictable directions.
MPAA rating: None. In French with subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.
Playing: Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena (weekends only).