WHEN THE SEA RISESNR
L'amour belongs to the French. The romantic ballads of the troubadours were sung in Old French, the langue d'oc of Provençal. Archetypal stories celebrating love and romantic intrigue, "The Song of Roland" and "Cyrano de Bergerac," are French, as are the enduring tales of star-crossed lovers, "Tristan and Isolde" and La Belle et la Bête. And what more famous heroine of repressed passion is there than Madame Bovary? Of course there's Paris, the City of Love. We'll always have Paris, Rick says to his tearful Ilsa. Romance, love and sensuality are the trademark of the French and of their language. So when Yolande Moreau takes the stage in When the Sea Rises as the comedian Irène, clad in a blood-stained dress, and tells the audience she's killed her lover, she tramples upon the sacred ground of l'amour.
Named for a classic song which is the musical theme of the film ("When the Tide Comes In" by Raoul de Goederwaervelde), When the Sea Rises is the story of Irène, who's on tour with her one-woman show in Northern France. A married woman, charismatic but past her alluring middle years, Irène performs in a long-nosed mask reminiscent of Cyrano. During each performance, she involves her audience in a rather unique way: After admitting her crime, she reads her new personal ad and, finding no takers-she's still got her lover's blood on her-brandishes a flashlight to seduce a man in the audience to become her next lover. He is naturally reluctant, and Irène dubs him her poisson, her "chicken." One night, the chicken, a younger, working-class Adonis named Dries (Wim Willaert), waits for her after the show, and soon they're touring together.
When the Sea Rises is magical and enchanting, a fantasy affaire de coeur between an aging performer at the peak of her talents and a man who finds her alluring in ways her husband has long ceased to notice. Written and directed jointly by cinematographer Gilles Porte and comedian Yolande Moreau-her onstage performances in the film are Moreau's live shows-the film is also a hilarious satire on romance. Onstage, after describing her affair with her dead lover, Irène remarks: "The end? Who cares?" Indeed. It isn't the happily-ever-after that interests the artist, the poet, the playwright, for we all know that part to be a fiction. It is the beginning, the first kiss, the first dinner, the first night, the second chance, the possibilities, the chaos. In the end, Irène observes, we discard the Christmas tree but save the balls for next year. It's a brutal description of a woman's past loves and stored-up hopes.
Moreau is a well-known performer in France and in Canada, and it is no small miracle that her èlan survives the camera. After seeing several of her performances, Porte approached the comedian with a five-page treatment, and that began a five-year collaboration. He is a seasoned cinematographer who displays a wonderful sense of whimsy in When the Sea Rises, the perfect complement to Moreau's minimalism. If there's a glance back at the French New Wave in Porte's style, there is also the unerring instinct for humanity that is Renoir: Porte always finds the angle that highlights the characters' emotions. Moreau, who began her acting career auspiciously with a small role in Agnès Varda's Vagabond, most recently appeared as the concierge in Amélie. In 2005, she won a Best Actress César for her role as Irène, and she and Porte won for Best Film.
Romantic comedy is too often dominated by the young, young actors and young directors, for whom love and romance is all buttons and bows, a fluttering felt and acted upon quickly. In When the Sea Rises, romance assumes more dimension: It hunkers down in the midst of Irène's work, her marriage and her home remodeling-telephone conversations between Irène and her husband are mostly about replacing the floor tiles. If quotidian matters recede for Irène, like the surf, in that first blush of playful flirtation, they also come rushing back with the returning tide. If she were 20 years old, she'd dive in. At 50, she's holding her breath. That's what When the Sea Rises is all about: the wave unsteadying you, the sand and shells bruising your ankles, not falling, but feeling dizzy, giddy, defenseless, and relishing it.