MOVIE REVIEW : 'Tatie Danielle' Is Mean, but She Still Steals the Heart

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The heroine of Etienne Chatiliez's sharp, funny and relentlessly outrageous satire "Tatie Danielle" (at the Guild) is most likely the meanest old lady you ever saw on the screen. Clearly spoiled her entire life, Tatie Danielle (Tsilla Chelton, in an amazing portrayal) takes intense pleasure in being nasty and mean to everybody who has the misfortune to cross her path.

This is a woman who, wearing heavy "sensible" shoes, will stomp on a sprawled beggar just as quickly as a border of freshly planted pansies (in her own garden yet). She loves to sic her own beloved dog on the postman but doesn't hesitate to kick or even abandon someone else's pet.

She is a thoroughly awful piece of work who plays the sweet, helpless creature with glee when it suits her purpose. When she isn't talking to the portrait of her late husband, a cross-eyed colonel dead half a century, she's gorging herself on forbidden sweets while glued to the TV soaps. She may be bad news, but she's hilarious.

"Tatie Danielle," written by Florence Quentin with daring and insight, is the second feature from Chatiliez, whose equally funny babies-switched-at-birth comedy, "Life Is a Long Quiet River," revealed him to be a major, distinctive new talent in the French cinema.

When we meet Tatie (Auntie) Danielle in her splendid Second Empire townhouse in a small provincial city, she is deciding that the time has come for her to descend upon her nephew and his family, who live in a tasteful but fairly small flat in Paris. (Chatiliez's most inspired touch is in the way he stages the lethal incident, not to be revealed here, that precipitates this move; we're left to wonder whether Tatie Danielle deliberately provoked it or whether she merely made the most of the opportunity it provided). Danielle's plump nephew (Eric Prat) and his pretty wife (Catherine Jacob), who have two sons--one a teen-ager, the other an infant--are the essence of kindness and attentiveness.

The mark of a true satirist is evenhandedness, and nobody escapes Chatiliez's deft skewering, seasoned as it is with a delicious sense of the absurd. The nephew and his wife are so insulated in their secure and routine bourgeois existence they haven't figured out their elder son is gay, let alone what Tatie Danielle is all about.

At the same time they are so genuinely good and caring, you can't help but like them. And when they hire a temporary companion for Tatie when they take their vacation, you believe the old woman has at last met her match in their choice, a no-nonsense young woman (Isabelle Nanty). Yet if the companion is to succeed, Chatiliez suggests, she's got to have some nastiness of her own if the two are to connect. Where Chatiliez is wisest is in not excusing Tatie Danielle, who is hardly helpless, for her horrible behavior.

As in "Life Is a Long Quiet River," Chatiliez is a miracle worker with actors.

Chelton, who is actually a decade younger than her 82-year-old character, and Nanty are perfectly matched, never better than when they're revealing how the two women seem to be starting to bring out the best in each other. Neige Dolsky is a comic wonder as Tatie Danielle's spindly, elderly put-upon servant. Prat and Laurence Fevrier as his sister are amusing in their initial naivete about their awful aunt. The film's scene-stealer, however, is Catherine Jacob, so adorable and funny is her hugely put-upon wife and mother.

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