Film Review: Elza

There is matchless beauty here in both the actors and the setting, but this study of family and race needed a surer auteurial hand.

Parisian grad student Elza (Stana Roumillac) is a girl on a mission, namely to reconnect with her father, Désiré (Vincent Bryd Le Sage), a powerful tycoon who abandoned her and her mother (writer-director Mariette Monpierre) when she was child. She travels to her birthplace, the island of Guadaloupe, discovers his whereabouts living with his new family and, lying about her identity, is hired in his home as nanny to his little granddaughter, Caroline (Eva Constant).

Monpierre loosely based her debut feature film on her own search for her parent, and Elza is an undeniably deeply heartfelt work, filled as well with a love for the sensual beauty of Guadaloupe and its people. She offers many small, telling scenes which have a feminine authenticity and emotional truth, while not stinting on the kind of colonial racism which engenders comments like Désiré’s “With kinky hair like yours, you could never be my daughter.”

But Monpierre has a surfeit of subplots here, ranging from the local workers’ rather unconvincing uprising against Désiré, which briefly sees Caroline kidnapped, to the soap opera-like machinations of Elza’s new, utterly dysfunctional family. Caroline’s seedy father is, Just like Désiré, who has fathered numerous illegitimate children, Caroline’s seedy dad is one horny goat; stuck with a coldly unloving wife, he puts the moves on Elza. The mordantly humorous relationship the two manage to effect actually becomes the most interesting, original part of the film.

Roumillac is appealing, but her character isn’t developed enough, and she emerges as a lovely cipher. There are also too many moments which feel falsely histrionic, as when Elza leaps from her taxi, fully clothed, into the beautiful ocean upon her return to her homeland. Monpierre’s control over all the disparate strains of her screenplay is also shaky, and her denouement is both flat and too pat.