Film: L'Attesa (2016)
Stars: Juliette Binoche, Lou de Laage, Giorgio Colangeli
Director: Piero Messina
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars
Meryl Streep in The Giver, anyone?), but Juliette Binoche is one of those names that simply put, I'll see in anything (particularly if it has subtitles). Binoche remains one of the truly great actors of our time-she won her Oscar relatively early in her career so many lay film fans simply think of her as the woman who beat Lauren Bacall or the actress with Johnny Depp in Chocolat, but La Binoche's career has been a series of nearly endless highlights, constant reminders of the fantastic, brilliant actress we fell in love with in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. As a result, with little knowledge about what the film was about or even what language it was in (I assumed, since it starred Binoche, that it would be in French but it is predominantly in Italian...the other other language that Binoche speaks), I slipped off on a Wednesday night (an odd cinematic evening for me as that is almost always Netflix night) to watch L'Attesa (aka The Wait), a film with no pretense or any sort of expectations except to look at Juliette Binoche.
(Spoilers Ahead) As a result of not knowing what I was getting into (even less so than usual for a guy who generally love/hates trailers and likes to just dive head first into a picture) I actually approached this film in a way I hadn't anticipated. For starters, the film is so filled with ambience and mood it's difficult to tell at first whether we're about to see a thriller, a horror, an erotic romance, or a moody, rough drama, though in the end the latter wins out. The movie is largely an acting duet between Anna (Binoche) and Jeanne (de Laage), the former a woman who starts the film in mourning and slowly comes out of her shell and the latter a young woman who is waiting for her boyfriend, Anna's son, and growing increasingly worried about why he will not visit her or call her.
The film's biggest issue, and the one it slowly overcomes in the second half but never quite believably tackles in the first, is that for a relatively intriguing girl like Jeanne, she never outwardly asks Anna why her boyfriend Giuseppe isn't coming yet or where he is. The film is pretty explicit that Giuseppe is dead, as the film starts with a funeral and slowly but steadily mounts into what is clearly a deep mourning process for Anna, who cannot bring herself to tell Jeanne that her son is dead, but it is shocking that Jeanne has such little curiosity for what has happened, and perhaps she is meant to have always known and, like Anna, wants to extend the fantasy just a little bit longer. The film isn't intended to be taken very literally (it's more of a cerebral exercise than anything else), but it's something that infuriated me in the first half before I settled into the acting duet in the second half, which is far superior.
The film's core is Binoche and de Laage, both of whom bring it in terms of cinematic wonder. De Laage, whom I wasn't acquainted with before this film, comes from the Adele Exarchopolous school of impossibly earthy beauty, and her Jeanne is an intensely-felt, complicated woman at once intimidated by and intrigued by the woman she hopes to be her mother-in-law. As the film progresses, and she realizes that she has been drawn to this odd woman, her guard stays up (we never get to know the truth behind her relationship with Giuseppe, or what precisely "happened last summer" as so much of the film's dialogue remains surface-level), but her presence, perhaps mirroring that of a younger Anna, is intoxicating. There's a deeply-sexual scene late in the film where Leonard Cohen's "Waiting for the Miracle" plays while she dances with two men (one gay, one straight) and you half expect an orgy to pop up simply out of sheer intoxicating European eroticism, but the film is more about the mind than the pleasurable, and it resists. Still, her allure and insecurity shines through, and I hope this isn't the last time de Laage and I are acquainted.
Binoche, continuing her stunning recent winning streak (Certified Copy and Clouds of Sils Maria still being the peaks), embodies Anna with such care that we don't learn her true motives until late in the film, as it dawns on the audience that not only is she trying to learn more about the son who abandoned her (first by growing up, and then by dying), but also because this is her last chance to be with the person she loved most in the world, even through a proxy. She correctly states, in a devastating monologue late in the film, that Jeanne will move on with her life-she will marry and get someone new who will be the center of her universe. It isn't stated, but directly implied, that Anna will not be so lucky, and will instead wander around her house, living a staid sort of existence, waiting for a beloved son to come home that never will. Few actors have Binoche's control to keep this subtle, to not play for tears too early or showboat, but as a result we get a wonderful master class in acting.
The story is so rich in the second half, it's to be forgiven most if not all of its sins in the first half. The script still has too many holes during the top hour, particularly when it tries to use emotional or staggered glances to fill in gaps even though we don't know these characters well enough yet to understand their meaning. The second half blossoms so heartily, in terms of story, acting, and cinematography (there's a provocative scene featuring a series of capirote-sporting men during Easter week that will be particularly jarring for American audiences who associate that hat with racism, but its lensing feels like you've fallen into a Fellini picture), that this is mostly forgiven. The film is the sort that sticks with you, and continues to make you want to seek out every Juliette Binoche picture you can get your hands upon.