Friday May 31, 1996
Made before his award-winning "Wild Reeds," Andre Techine's "Ma Saison Preferee" (My Favorite Season) is a superb companion film to the subsequent picture, which dealt with the coming of age of a group of young people, one of them gay, in the embittered, divisive France at the time of the Algerian War.
Together, these films mark Techine's own coming of age. Always a director of wit and style, Techine has become a mature auteur capable of expressing the intricate interplay of the most complex characters and relationships with an elegant, self-effacing discretion.
"Ma Saison Preferee" ranks with the best work not only of Techine but also of its formidable stars, Catherine Deneuve and Daniel Auteuil. (Deneuve has complained in the press of the film's previous unavailability in the U.S., and rightly so.)
Techine traces the impact of the declining health of an elderly woman (Marthe Villalonga) on her adult children, Emilie (Deneuve) and Antoine (Auteuil). The siblings have been estranged for three years when Emilie invites the volatile Antoine to what proves to be a Christmas dinner from hell. Emilie has extended the invitation because their doughty widowed mother, living alone in a farmhouse, has had an apparent slight stroke. She has seemingly recovered but is now living with her daughter.
Emilie lives in a handsome country estate outside Toulouse, where Antoine works as a brain surgeon and Emilie and her husband (Jean-Pierre Bouvier) are government attorneys.
They have a college-student daughter (Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve's own daughter by Marcello Mastroianni) and an adopted grown son (Anthony Prada), and they've invited for Christmas their stunning office clerk (Carmen Chaplin) with whom the son is having an affair.
Even though the hotheaded Antoine has humorously recited to himself a veritable rosary of social niceties, he inevitably explodes at dinner, as he has on previous occasions, this time with devastating and unexpected consequences all around.
Antoine and his mother, a tough-minded though illiterate peasant, have no patience with small talk, while Emilie has evolved into a chic bourgeois. Yet confronted with her brother's and mother's forthrightness, she in her heart casts her lot with them, pondering that she may in fact be as incapable of love as her husband insists she is.
Their joint responsibility to their mother inevitably bridges the renewed estrangement between sister and brother. Emilie and Antoine were in Antoine's own words "too close" while growing up, but Antoine, who has never married, is eager to return to that closeness.
The word "incest" is never uttered, nor is there any need to say it. Antoine is for sure in love with with his beautiful sister, who was, he says, "every girl's ideal, every boy's fantasy" when they were growing up.
His feelings go way beyond sex and express that craving for the emotional security of childhood. Consequently, the questions that the briskly paced "Ma Saison Preferee" poses so astutely include: Will Emilie and Antoine, in coping with their togetherness, revert to the refuge of childhood memories or emerge as true adults at last? Will they have to go through one phase to arrive at the other? Will they both follow the same course?
Deneuve and Auteuil are flawless in expressing the mercurial changes of emotion in Emilie and Antoine as they work out their destinies, and Techine rounds out the brother's and sister's lives with concern for the feelings of everyone else around them.
Villalonga has a monolithic presence in the portrayal of a strong, reticent woman facing up to the subversive ravages of illness, and Bouvier, Mastroianni, Chaplin and Prada all have the opportunity to shine in multifaceted roles. Ingrid Caven has a wonderful, eerie moment as a woman who breaks out into song in a crowded cafe.
Never mind that "Ma Saison Preferee" bears a 1993 copyright date; it's been well worth the wait.
Ma Saison Preferee, 1996. Unrated. A Filmopolis Pictures presentation. Writer-director Andre Techine. Producer Alain Sarde. Cinematographer Thierry Arbogast. Editor Martine Giordano. Costumes Claire Fraisse. Music Philippe Sarde. Production designer Carlos Conti. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes. Catherine Deneuve as Emilie. Daniel Auteuil as Antoine. Marthe Villalonga as Berthe. Jean-Pierre Bouvier as Bruno.