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 traditional theater. 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!



  • Not recommended.
  • The transfer is widescreen, but is letterboxed, not anamorphically enhanced, and you will not find it to be of the highest professional standard, unless you really enjoy interlacing and motion blur.
  • The film is in French with too-large and hard-coded English subtitles that cannot be removed.
  • Interview with Claude Miller
  • Interview with Ludivine Sagnier
  • VERY small photo gallery


All of the flesh comes at the very beginning of the film when Ludivine Sagnier offers full frontal and rear nudity in a sex scene.

The Critics Vote ...

The People Vote ...

  • It never appeared on more than one screen at a time in the United States, finishing with a gross of $34,000 for 11 weeks.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, it's a C, a good film, but one made for intellectuals to discuss late into the night, and for critics to show off their analytical skills.

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