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Review: Imagine Isabelle Huppert as a Euro ‘American Idol’ star turned factory worker. It’s ‘Souvenir’

Isabelle Huppert and Kévin Azais in the movie "Souvenir."
(Strand Releasing)

Isabelle Huppert as a has-been chanteuse is all a film fan should need to stoke the wanna-see factor for “Souvenir,” and it probably doesn’t hurt that there’s a May-December romance as an extra incentive for devotees of the magnetic French superstar.

But promise is all one’s left with after Belgian director Bavo Defurne’s melodramatic trifle plays itself out, leaving the distinct impression that a richer vein of regret, renewal and consequence was passed over for a more superficial, though highly stylized admiration of Huppert’s image-seizing gifts. Not that there aren’t sporadic pleasures in store for the star’s completists — a seasoned gesture here, a well-timed tear there and the steely beauty of her ageless gaze. But it’s not enough to save “Souvenir” from the sense that without her anchoring presence, this movie would float away.

Her serenely lonely Liliane is almost a parody figure in the establishing scenes: a food factory worker in cap and smock during the day, garnishing tubs of pre-packaged pâté with bay leaves and dried berries, and at home a silk-robed liqueur sipper perched on her sofa watching trivia game shows. Both Liliane’s impossibly spotless, blue-tiled workspace and the elegantly dimmed, earthier tones of her modestly decorated home are like attempts at environmental imprisonment in the vein of Douglas Sirk movies. But Defurne’s rigorously symmetrical shots, dutifully executed by cinematographer Philippe Guilbert, feel more antiseptic than evocative.

We learn about who Liliane was when a new temp employee — aspiring lightweight boxer Jean (Kévin Azaïs) — recognizes her as a singer named Laura who enjoyed brief fame competing in a televised European singing contest (think Eurovision) before quickly fading into obscurity. (She lost the prize to ABBA, we’re told.) Though initially put off by the handsome 21-year-old co-worker’s admiring queries, Liliane befriends Jean, then agrees to his plea to sing at a party for his sports club, even after his obliviously less-than-flattering caveat, “We were going to get a magician.”

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Spurred by renewed attention and emboldened by becoming lovers with Jean, Liliane entertains the notion of a comeback, with Jean ready to quit the ring and become her manager.

This is when “Souvenir” starts to unravel as a story, as a fantastical dream of love and ambition, and even as a piece about the healing power of music. For one thing, the age difference spice of Liliane’s and Jean’s affair is undercut by how immaturely zipless Jean is as a character. Azais is either goofy smiles or petulant moping, so the job of persuading us that there is any spark at all between these two falls to Huppert. She’s not helped by the deflating energy of the film’s second half (or her bedroom’s all-red color scheme). Even she can’t sell the romantic stakes of this weak coupling, which is predictably threatened by the reemergence of the songwriting impresario (Johan Leysen) who dumped Liliane years ago, but who agrees to write a new song for her.

Then there’s Huppert’s curiously expression-deficient, mannered singing, which has a certain French-ified allure as anti-pop performance art cabaret. It could make for an archly amusing music video but doesn’t pass muster for a fairy tale yarn about a forgotten star’s reemergence in a national spotlight. Also, the songs, by Portland’s Europop-jazz confectioners Pink Martini, are slight things that tickle more than evoke musical passion, although there’s a slight chance you’ll have Huppert’s huskily chanted “Je dis OUI!” in your ears for a while afterward.

One of the reasons “Souvenir” is such a singular disappointment is because Defurne’s debut, “North Sea Texas,” was such a finely tuned coming-of-age film, its visual elegance and emotions well-synched. “Souvenir,” on the other hand, is glossy nonsense, its legendary star mostly an entrancing ornament. The title surely means more for Defurne’s casting fortune than our viewing enjoyment.

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‘Souvenir’

In French with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

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Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica

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