Film Review: Making Plans for Lena

This study of a difficult woman, without a truly electrifying actress in the role, never catches fire.

“You’re an absurd woman,” a character says at one point to Lena (Chiara Mastroianni) in Making Plans for Lena, Christophe Honoré’s study of a family which centers around an unusually difficult titular character. That is actually one of the nicer things said about her, for Lena seems bent on self-destruction when she absconds with her two little children, after discovering the extramarital affair of her husband, Nigel (Jean-Marc Barr). She flees to her parents, Annie (Marie-Christine Barrault) and Michel (Fred Ulysse), who happen to own one of those dreamy, shabby-chic country houses everyone seems to have access to in French movies. What Lena hasn’t counted on is the meddling ways of her mother, who has also invited Nigel, and sister, Frederique (Marina Fois), who is having marital problems of her own.

The film is intelligent (perhaps a bit too much for its own good) and well-made, but never really takes off, although the superlative cinematography by Laurent Brunet is full of telling camera movement and unstressed beauty—like a shot of Lena napping in a sylvan setting Courbet would have died for. With a protean actress like Jeanne Moreau playing this maddeningly perverse Lena (a great-niece, perhaps, to Moreau’s brilliant Catherine in Jules and Jim), it might have all come together. Instead, I spent much of the film noticing how much Mastroianni, with her hooded, searching eyes and sensually decided mouth, resembles her Papa, Marcello, without his transformative acting skills. (She also doesn’t have the mysterious, read-into-me-what-you-will glamour of her mother, Catherine Deneuve.) She works hard, all right, but is never more than serious and competent, lacking the electric, empathic charisma which could have made you really care about Lena, for all her obstinate, schizzy ways.

She has an apt sister in Fois, who goes even further than her in doing unsympathetic acerbity. When you see these two harpies blissfully sniping at their very well-meaning, patient husbands and each other, you think they’d both be better off together, alone somewhere. In contrast, their brother, Gulven, is infuriatingly sunny, and both Julien Honoré, who plays him, and Louis Garrel as a hapless suitor of Lena’s seem to be impersonating Jean-Pierre Léaud at his most youthfully antic.

There are some nice performances, however. Ulysse has a quietly impressive majesty, and Barrault, now much heavier than in the days when she was the French Grace Kelly, brings a rich world of emotion and experience as another wife who maybe doesn’t appreciate her man as much as she should. Flower-faced Lou Pasquerault and Donatien Suner are sweet presences as Lena’s kids, although Honoré’s use of them as pawns who hear way too much scarring information from careless adults becomes heavy-handed.

Also, in a prime example of why it isn’t always best to “write what one knows,” Breton Honoré kills his movie in the middle with an unnecessary, jarring digression of an ancient Brittany folk tale about a beautiful but destructive maiden who leaves suitors dead and marries the devil. We’ve already seen how a wounded magpie dies while under the care of Lena; all this destructive symbolism is all too unsubtly marked.