When Two Solitudes Collide

in 51st Gijón International Film Festival

by Mihai Fulger

Enter Henri: A fifty-something man of Italian origin, a former cycling champion who is now both chef and owner of a small family restaurant near the Belgian city of Charleroi. Henri doesn’t talk much to his wife, daughter or drinking buddies. Moreover, he doesn’t seem to expect much from the rest of his life. Henri’s only escape from the daily routine is his hobby: he’s a pigeon fancier. And then, out of the blue, his wife dies.

Now enter Rosette: A thirty-something woman with a mild mental handicap, living in a home for persons euphemistically called White Butterflies. The same as Henri, Rosette has a family and is surrounded by people, but nobody seems to care whether she wants more from her life. After Henri’s wife dies, at the suggestion of his daughter (who knows that a ‘White Butterfly’ is commonly paid less than ‘normal’ people), he hires Rosette to help him with the restaurant.

Sharing similar dreams and desires, these two characters function as the plural-protagonist of Henri, the solo writing and directing debut of the acclaimed Belgian actress Yolande Moreau, premiered nine years after she co-wrote and co-directed When the Sea Rises (Quand la mer monte) with Gilles Porte. A France-Belgium co-production unanimously awarded the International Critics Prize (FIPRESCI Prize) at the Gijón International Film Festival, Henri is the work of a mature filmmaker who knows how to tell a story visually (without relying much on dialogue), how to construct and shoot each mise-en-scène, how to make use of metaphors or symbols and, above all, how to bring out the best performances from the actors.

Playing the eponymous character, Pippo Delbono, one of the major contemporary innovators of the theatrical language (as playwright, director, actor and dancer), is truly magnificent. It was high time that this incredibly gifted artist, previously known to the international cinema audience for several well-executed supporting parts, was offered the chance of such a complex and laborious main role. And it is immediately visible that he fully enjoyed playing Henri. No less worthy of praise is his screen partner, Candy Ming (a.k.a. Miss Ming), a French poet, visual artist and singer familiar from the eccentric films of Gustave de Kervern and Benoît Delépine. Candy Ming’s sensitive and nuanced portrayal of Rosette (a woman who, despite her disability, aches for love as anyone else — which is obvious, for instance, in the swimming pool scene — and who can become quite manipulative to attain her goal) is compelling and memorable. It should be added that, besides the original music composed by the actor Wim Willaert, the diegetic songs chosen by Yolande Moreau speak for the film’s taciturn characters. The most striking example is the version of Petula Clark’s “La Nuit n’en finit plus” (a French cover of the hugely successful “Needles and Pins”) played by the chorus of White Butterflies (all dressed up as angels and wizards), with Rosette as lead singer.

It is anything but simple for a director to tackle a love story involving mentally disabled persons (another recent and relevant film, also selected in the main competition of Gijón IFF, is Gabrielle by Canadian director Louise Archambault), but Yolande Moreau, more interested in conveying profound human truths rather than facile emotions, manages to do it with remarkable acuity, delicacy and warmth. Henri is a delightful and touching tragicomedy about the magic moment when two solitudes collide.

Edited by Steven Yates