The last time I saw Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, three years ago, she was in tears as her brother had just died of AIDS---and she cut our Cannes interview short.
This year she has a film in Competition: A Castle in Italy. As her two previous films, this one is about Bruni-Tedeschi's intimate family life, with a great portion devoted to the brother-sister relationship. The plot: the brother (Ludovic) is struggling with his imminent death; the sister (Louise) is struggling with a desire, at age 43, to have a child. In the meantime, the (extraordinarily wealthy) family seems to need money and is selling off the family castle, the last memory of the deceased father.
We also have a love story between Louise and a goofy younger man (played by Louis Garrel) who was actually Bruni-Tedeschi's long-time companion in real life. Bruni-Tedeschi's real mother, the pianist Marisa Borini, has an important role in the film as well, as Louise's strong mother, clearly the pillar of the family.
It is a emotionally powerful film, not only because of the tender brother-sister scenes (you clearly intuit their love as they laugh and cuddle in the castle), but because you feel Louise/Valeria's pain for not being able to have a child. "It's not good for a woman to not have children," says one character somberly. Louise is so desperate that she goes to the south of Italy to a church to sit in a chair that is reputed by Catholics to make women fertile. A hysterically funny scene results with the determined Louise literally wrestling nuns to the floor in order to get the privilege to sit.
But we suspect all along that her frantic efforts will be in vain, just as the brother is also doomed to die.
What makes the film captivating is its constant shift from one emotional scene to another. We have many excruciatingly funny vignettes, including my favorite in which a beggar pushes away Louise's offer of food, calling her "an old bitch who needs a fuck." We also have authentic scenes of suffering, such as one in which Louise clutches her dead brother's shoes.
The themes of this film? They are simple: the need for a woman to have love and children; the divide between the rich and poor (Bruni-Tedeschi pointedly has one of the castle staff admonish another: "You know the rich cry too"); the whimsical clinging onto faith despite suffering. The mother, after her son's death, covers up a statue of the Madonna, to be sold with the castle.
Later, she cannot resist uncovering it.
Bruni-Tedeschi grew up in Italy until aged nine, when her industrialist family had to leave Italy in fear of kidnapping by the Red Brigades. Italian culture plays a large role in the film, not only in the allusions to prayers and saints, and the Gregorian chants, but in the frenetic emotional energy of Bruni Tedeschi's acting. She, exposing her neuroses to the world at large, does not seem very "French".
In fact, one pleasure of the film lies in how this high society actress resists the trap of looking like a conventional bourgeois female, with the requisite silk scarves and alluring pastel blouses buttoned to the neck. "Louise" dresses in old unbecoming sweaters, lugs around a scarf that looks too big for her, and is not at a loss for taking off her shoes and running barefoot on the sidewalk. Not tres elegant.
A Castle in Italy received mixed reviews at Cannes. I loved it, perhaps because the film seemed to put together and heal the issues that stopped our interview three years before. I was also happy to learn later that Valeria now does have a child, a little girl she adopted.
"She's a woman's director," whispered one journalist next to me. "We women in France love Valeria because she is so emotional, so raw. We can relate."
Interestingly, a director who is so open that she takes the risk of opening the doors of her "castle" to the public, makes--more than any other celebrity at Cannes--a sharp division between private and public in her real life.
"No personal questions," the press agent told us before the interviews this year. "She hates personal questions. You must treat the film like a fiction."
A moment after the premiere, I happened to run into Valeria in the bathroom, chatting away and leaning on her supportive mother's arm.
"Congratulations," I said.
It was good I ran into her as when I went to my interview later that afternoon, I found out--once again--that it had been cancelled. A journalist had asked one personal question too many, and Valeria had cut the interviews short.