La Petite Lili (2003) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
In the late nineteenth century, the Russian doctor/playwright Anton
Chekhov wrote his first major play: The Seagull, a
middlebrow tragicomedy about a family gathered at a seaside estate
to see a new play written by the son of the house. He is one of
those impassioned would-be artists who hopes to shatter what he
sees as the clumsy, artificial existing conventions of the
His mother is a famed but fading diva of the very commercial theater
tradition which her son despises. Mother's
lover is a successful novelist,
The actual performance of the play is a disaster which never even gets to the end of the seemingly interminable opening monologue, a pretentious bit of dreck about how the souls of all living creatures have merged into one soul. It includes lines like, "That great world soul is I. In me are the souls of Alexander, Caesar, Shakespeare and Napoleon, and of the lowest worm." The mother is predictably bored and talks to her son during the performance. The successful writer defends the young playwright while actually scheming to steal his lover, the beautiful provincial girl who stars in the play. When it becomes clear that play is an abject failure, the young actress does turn her attention to the successful novelist, who seems to be able to aid her career. Tragedy ensues.
In La Petite Lili, the French director Claude Miller has updated the play to modern day France. Chekhov's young playwright has become an avant-garde filmmaker in his 21st century avatar. The mother and her lover are a popular actress and her favorite successful commercial director. The young girlfriend is a provincial girl who dreams of escaping to film stardom in Paris. The screening of the film goes just as badly in this movie as the first performance of the play went in Chekhov's version of the story. In fact, the film-within-a-film even uses some of Chekhov's overblown monologue from the equivalent play-within-play. Mother and son quarrel. She calls his gloomy film a ''a provincial Bergman ripoff," which was true enough, but probably not the kind of thing a nurturing mother should tell her son. When the son leaves the room, mom calls him a ''pretentious little fool, boring us silly.'' Sweet gal. Following the screening, the young actress realizes that the avant garde life is not for her, and promptly takes up with mother's lover.
The parallel between La Petite Lili and The Seagull does not continue indefinitely, however. The film finds a way to twist Chekhov's melodramatic ending to a sort of ironic pseudo-melodrama. In the play, the young man eventually kills himself. His girlfriend runs off with the established writer and, even after the affair and her career burn quickly out, she will not return to the young man, despite his willingness to reconcile. The Chekhov story ends with a character saying, "Get Irina (the mother) away from here. Konstantin (the son) has shot himself." In the film, the young man does not stay true to his ideals, and does not shoot himself. Instead he sells out and becomes a mainstream commercial filmmaker using blue screen effects, colored filters, and syrupy music. He writes a movie in which he re-tells the story of the very weekend when he screened his first film for the family and lost his lover, and we therefore get to watch the same story performed a second time with his artistic spin, and with the mother and the girlfriend playing unflattering versions of themselves! The final twist of the film is that the fictional retelling of the events goes right back to Chekhov's version. In the young auteur's big budget film-within-a-film, the character representing him does hold on to his ideals, and does kill himself, whereupon Chekhov's famous closing line is used virtually verbatim!
All of that sounds fairly interesting until you think about it and realize that it isn't really very cinematic. La Petite Lili is more interested in reflecting on Chekhov than in trying to show how his genius works in our time, and it is better at commenting on films than in actually being a film. In other words, I won't quarrel with the high IMDb score because I really found the movie fairly interesting as a talky bit of literary and film criticism, but you have to realize that I am interested in that kind of thing. I think it is probably not very entertaining as a stand-alone film for those who aren't really interested in the intellectual challenge of adapting a Chekhov play, so if you don't care about the mechanics of that process and aren't even familiar with The Seagull, you may find this a talky, boring slog lightened only by Ludivine Sagnier's unique beauty. And even that has its drawbacks. Although Sagnier looks interesting and sexy, and I don't feel qualified to evaluate the nuances of an actress performing in French, it still seems to me that she probably lacks the acting chops for this role. I surely wasn't convinced that she seemed like a sophisticated urban glam queen in the later portions of the film.
By the way, I don't recommend the Region 1 DVD even if you share my interest in the project. It seems like a leftover from the early days of DVD. There is a widescreen version, but it is letterboxed rather than anamorphically enhanced, and is filled with interlacing and motion blur. Furthermore, there are no audio or subtitle options. You must watch it in French with very large English subtitles that cover up too much of the image and cannot be removed. This would be irritating in any case, but is especially annoying in a letterboxed film, because the subtitles could have been placed down in the black space!
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