Bertrand Tavernier’s stunning “Beatrice” (Westside Pavilion)--set in France during the Hundred Years’ War--shows us a medieval world where the rules of the game have become instruments of madness and death, where the wind of heaven has turned to a howl of rage.
The story gives us Tavernier’s favorite subject, a family or community in crisis: Here, a conflict between an adoring daughter and a brutal father in revolt against God. But though Tavernier is on the side of the daughter, Beatrice (Julie Delpy), there’s no deity here to rescue her. The skies crush down on a hostile land, an omnipresent wind howls and, below, the humans move like flies about to be smashed by wanton boys at play.
Cinematographer Bruno de Keyzer’s massively scaled frames have none of the usual picture-book prettiness of movies on the late Middle Ages. With their cold, bluish cast, they suggest an earth barely tamed, raw and teeming with natural forces that overpower the puniness of humanity.
Mountains sweep up icily all around; the woodlands are almost empty of sunlight or frolic. The castles aren’t quaint; they’re huge blocks or cylinders of stone, and braziers inside cast murky spots of smoky glare. No other Middle Ages period film looks quite like this one--and only a few, like Walerian Borowczyk’s 1971 “Blanche,” tell such seemingly merciless and anti-romantic stories.
The film, written by Tavernier’s ex-wife Colo Tavernier O’Hagan, shows Francois de Cortemare (Bernard Pierre Donnadieu) and his daughter, Beatrice, locked in formidable conflict. It’s a moral battle set in mythic terms, and when we first see Francois, through Beatrice’s eyes, his legend is in chrysalis. He is a happy young boy of 10 when his departing father gives him a sword. Minutes later he plunges it into his mother’s lover, after surprising them in her boudoir.
This savage incident sets Francois’ character. He becomes warrior and cynic incarnate, nourishing a fierce hatred of women. Beatrice is reverent and brave, loves life, worships her family. Francois, equally brave, hates and rejects both--despising his son Arnaud (Nils Tavernier, son of the director) as an effeminate coward, reviling his mother, insulting his daughter. It is, apparently, Beatrice’s very goodness that drives him to assault after assault on her idealism--until finally, in the last obscenity, he rapes her repeatedly, then attempts to marry her, hurtling both of them toward a bloody resolution.
If you take Francois simply for a surly, crazy brute, a mean symbol of rampaging patriarchy, then this film becomes as sordid and hollow as some critics have already charged. But Donnadieu’s great, impassioned performance suggests something else.
Like Macbeth, he’s a good man turned monster. It is not Francois’ character but his code that makes him evil: The code which clearly states--as a priest partially informs us--that the poor must submit to the rich, a daughter to her father and that a wife’s lover must be slain. Francois’ battle is not really against Beatrice but, at first, against the God he furiously rejects--and who obstinately refuses to punish him, despite endless provocations. And finally, his battle is against himself, with Beatrice as his instrument.
Donnadieu underpins Francois’ misanthropy and swagger with a sourly meditative quality. His blockish face and burly body, like Gerard Depardieu’s, seems to glint with an animal vitality, but his eyes are rheumy with sadness. There’s a dual layer to everything he does, and in only one scene, when he rends the night with wolf-like howls of anguish, does his hyper-consciousness seem wholly absent. In contrast, Julie Delpy’s face sometimes suggests the purity and grace of Vermeer’s portraits. But her beauty, like Francois’ ugliness, is moral. (Delpy sometimes projects a tomboy’s defiant quality--and a fury that occasionally matches her father’s.)
Tavernier’s previous historical epic--the biting “Let Joy Reign Supreme"--had a similar iconoclasm. But here everything is more extreme: The landscapes more beautiful, the emotions more lacerating. Even the music violently mixes archaism with the contemporary, such as snatches of Lily Boulanger’s mournful “Pie Jesu” jangling against jazz bassist Ron Carter’s percussive compositions.
Some audiences will find “Beatrice” an almost punishing experience. It is a far harsher film than Tavernier’s bristly “Coup de Tourchon.” Here, the black overview has no leavening of charm or humor. Tavernier and O’Hagan are trying for elemental passions, reaching for tragedy in a world that usually recognizes only comedy or pathos.
The world we see here is so cruel, so violent--with its witches and puppets, its sad small idiots, its mothers clutching their bloody young, its humiliations, violations and burnings at the stake--that an audience could be forgiven for turning from it in revulsion or ridicule.
But buried within it is a dark vision: If evil can spring from honor, love can bury them both--even a love twisted into hate. Francois’ poisonous world view is founded on murder and betrayal, and all his goodness lies within his daughter--a goodness he can reawaken only by turning it against himself, driving her to a rage that matches his. It’s that conflict, rich in contradiction, that gives Bertrand Tavernier’s dark, fiery, powerful “Beatrice” (MPAA-rated R: for nudity, sex and violence) its inexorable pitch toward tragedy.