There’s a fine line between being dramatically and artistically ambiguous and having nothing to say, and veteran filmmaker and actress Nicole Garcia’s equally lethargic and laughable From the Land of the Moon ends up firmly on the wrong side of that line. It’s a gorgeously composed film with thinly drawn characters, no sense of escalation or pacing, and nothing of interest to say. On paper it sounds exactly like the kinds of films Terrence Malick has been making for the past decade, but take away all of his lyricism and add a straightforward plot straight out of a Harlequin romance novel and you’ll have an idea of the toxic goulash Garcia has ended up with here.
Director and co-writer Garcia’s story – adapted from a novel by Italian author Milena Agus that can’t possibly be worse than the film – centres around young Gabrielle, a woman coming of age in the French countryside in the late 1940s and early 1950s. This young woman never has her age specified, but has to be in her late teens or early twenties. Gabrielle is played by forty-one year old actress Marion Cotillard, a gifted and talented performer trapped under painfully obvious layers of age defying make-up, trying desperately and failing to remember what it’s like to be young and awkward. Cotillard is first seen in the film as an older woman with a teenage son before flashbacks to her youth begin. She’s a believable adult, but 95% of the film portrays Gabrielle as a young woman, and immediately Garcia has made a huge mistake that not even someone with the immeasurable talent of Cotillard could compensate for. The film is immediately off putting and unbelievable mere minutes after it has started.
Gabrielle has a fascination with sex; possibly an addiction, but definitely an obsession. She flirts heavily and creepily with her considerably older literature teacher, bordering on stalkerish behaviour. She strips down naked and stands in her bedroom window for a bunch of farmers to gaze upon her form. From the Land of the Moon never makes it known clearly if Gabrielle is experimenting, obsessing, sexually unrepressed, a closeted nymphomaniac, mentally distressed, or all of the above. All we know is that Gabrielle’s family, particularly her traditionalist mother, are concerned about her life choices. Gabrielle’s mother approaches one of her farmhands, a hardworking Spanish ex-pat named José (Àlex Brendemühl), to enter into an arranged marriage with the unwed girl in exchange for some capital to start a contracting business. Gabrielle doesn’t fight this decision too strenuously, but given the tempestuous nature of her character it’s unfathomable that she doesn’t at least try. Their marriage is a loveless sham, and they both know it, with José frequenting prostitutes because his wife won’t sleep with him.
Halfway through From the Land of the Moon the viewer knows nothing about Gabrielle except that she has a capacity for sexual feelings, lives in a vaguely repressed culture, and that she marries and eventually has a child with José. We know nothing about her inner life or actual desires outside of that one teacher she coveted. Gabrielle’s reasons to live and her motivations are a mystery and will remain a mystery throughout the film. Cotillard can only do so much heavy lifting, but with nothing to supplement her performance, spending time with Gabrielle’s blank slate of a life becomes a chore.
Gabrielle suffers from kidney stones, an affliction that leads to her becoming a patient for six weeks at a wellness centre in the Swiss Alps for water therapy treatment. While there and away from her husband (who’s paying for the treatments because the stones are keeping her from having a baby), she meets and begins to have feelings for Lieutenant André Sauvage (Louis Garrel), an ailing, sad eyed soldier recently returned from the Indochina War trying to recuperate from a potentially fatal kidney disease of his own. We know little of him except that he’s not doing well and that Gabrielle sees something attractive in him. In André, Gabrielle finally finds someone she deems worthy of her sexual advances.
The relationship between André and Gabrielle is tenuous and fleeting, especially since the viewer knows they don’t stay together from the opening sequence. We know less about André than we do Gabrielle, so all Garrel can do is sit around looking sad while Cotillard makes doe eyes at him. Sexually there seems to be an attraction there, which is more of a credit to the actors than Garcia’s material, but emotionally there are fewer sparks here than two wet towels lying motionless atop one another. It doesn’t help that Garcia has no sense of pacing or how to build this budding relationship. Part of this deliberately awkward pacing is tied to the film’s brazenly idiotic final act twist – something straight out of a bad Nicholas Sparks novel – but it doesn’t help that just one scene after André firmly rebukes the married woman’s advances they’re having sex all over the hospital without even discussing what brought on this change of heart.
From the Land of the Moon is all smoke and no fire. Forget the fire, actually. There isn’t even a fire pit, grill, or burning building that could have housed the flames. It’s a vaporous work that dissipates in the air before forming into something. Any film about romance or sexuality has to create either characters worth investing in – positively or negatively – or give the viewer an insight into why these people are acting the way they do. It’s the kind of film where characters and the audience are asked to accept things as they are without every questioning why they have to be this way. That’s might be the proper, cynical, hackneyed approach if for a studio-driven Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean movie that’s aiming at the lowest common denominator, but not when one is attempting to make an austere, old school, artistically pretentious romance like the one Garcia has attempted with From the Land of the Moon. The characters don’t seem to care about their lives beyond merely surviving from day to day, so why should we care about watching them?
It’s further frustrating because Garcia has crafted a great looking motion picture. If one were to turn the sound and subtitles off, From the Land of the Moon would be quite striking to behold. Garcia’s film works best when marvelling at individual images that are detached from anything going on with the plot: a single tree rising from arid farmland, Cotillard passed out face down in a rocky riverbed, a car driving along the winding roads of the Swiss mountains. The visuals provided by Garcia and cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne are a bigger attraction than the film’s overqualified cast and certainly more than the thin gruel that passes for a story.
From the Land of the Moon is the kind of project where one could readily see five or six better films coming from the material than the one that has ended up on screen. There are kernels of intelligence and good ideas peppered throughout Garcia’s work, but nothing gets followed through on in emotionally satisfying, intellectually stimulating, or artistically successful ways. It starts off frustrating, quickly becomes laughable and corny instead of moving, and ends up evaporating from the memory upon its conclusion like it never existed at all.
Also, From the Land of the Moon is a title that means absolutely nothing in or out of context with the film, but maybe it makes sense in the context of the source novel. The film’s French language title is Mal de Pierres, which translates more or less to “[Bad, Sore, Evil] Stones.” That’s a terrible title for a romance, and there’s very little here that could be described as “bad” or “evil,” but at least that has some bearing on the plot. Under any name, it’s a film so at war with itself that it can’t even come up with a coherent, meaningful title.
From the Land of the Moon opens at select theatres in Toronto, Ottawa, Saskatoon, Edmonton, and Regina on Friday, July 7, 2017. It opens in Vancouver and Victoria on Friday, July 21.
Check out the trailer for From the Land of the Moon: