Director: Catherine Corsini
Cast: Virginie Efira, Niels Schneider, Jehnny Beth, Estelle Lescure, Ambre Hasaj, Sasha Allessandri-Torres Garcia
Watch An Impossible Love online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema
Directed by Catherine Corsini (Summertime, Leaving), this French melodrama is adapted from the best-selling 2015 novel by Christine Angot. Audiences familiar with Angot’s work may have some idea of what to expect from that connection – suffice it to say that she’s a well known cultural figure in France and that her work is strongly auto-biographical (she also co-wrote Claire Denis’ magnificent anti-rom-com Let the Sunshine In).
The film begins in 1950s France, with a narrator telling the story of the romance between her mother, Rachel (Virginie Efira), and her father, Philippe (Niels Schneider). A young office worker from a Jewish background, Rachel has her head turned by Philippe, who’s handsome and charming and reads Nietzsche, a warning sign if ever there was one. Sure enough, when Rachel falls pregnant, Philippe refuses either to marry her – “Of course, if you were rich, I’d consider it,” he says – or to acknowledge the child as his own.
Over the next decade, Rachel raises the child, who she names Chantal, as a single mother, working hard and building an independent life for herself and her daughter. Years later, with Chantal now a teenager (played by Estelle Lescure), Philippe re-enters their lives, with devastating consequences.
For the first half of its running time, An Impossible Love feels comfortably traditional, telling a story that seems to be about class division, male arrogance and other familiar themes. There’s even some explicit sex, as if to underline the overwhelming French-ness of it all. And then the story takes a dark turn – which the audience may or may not see coming – and the effect is both shocking and utterly heartbreaking.
Having delivered its devastating gut-punch, the film sticks around to explore the consequences, with Chantal as a young woman, now played by Jehnny Beth (the lead singer of post-punk group Savages), whose resemblance to Angot is presumably not a coincidence. The result is unbearably moving, presenting a remarkable portrait of a mother-daughter relationship that will stay with you long after the credits roll.
Efira is extraordinary as Rachel – her humility and passive acceptance of Philippe’s appalling behaviour are hearrt-wrenching to watch and that’s just the start of it. She has a face that seems to absorb pain and you feel every ounce of emotion, even if she appears to be holding everything in. The performance is further enhanced by Corsini’s impressively restrained, yet realistic old-age make-up – so much so that certain other directors might want to come to her for tips.
Alongside Efira, newcomer Lescure is particularly impressive as teenage Chantal, navigating a range of complex emotions that hit hard. (It’s also amusing to see Angot paint herself as quite so much of a brat.) Beth makes a similarly strong impression as the older Chantal, while Schneider has a charismatic aloofness that makes him if not sympathetic, then at least human (he’s reminiscent of a very familiar type from French cinema), which only makes his later actions that much more despicable.
The film is extremely well made – Frédéric Baillehaiche’s skilled editing maintains a strong sense of pace throughout, while Jeanne Lapoirie’s sunny cinematography gives the film a deceptively warm glow and there’s a superb score from Grégoire Hetzel. In short, this is a treat for fans of French melodrama, but make sure you have a stack of tissues handy. You’ll definitely need a stiff drink afterwards, too.
An Impossible Love is available now in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema.