Film Review: Maison du Bonheur

The pure art of living has rarely been more effectively demonstrated than in this lovingly admiring portrait of a septugenarian Parisienne.
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What, exactly, is it about French women? What gives them their undeniable innate chic, their artfully arranged, impressive lifestyles, the overall capacity for being highly competent in everything when not excelling, and their extraordinary self-possession?

Some answers to those questions can be found in Sofia Bohdanowicz’s affecting little documentary, Maison de Bonheur. The Toronto filmmaker spent a month in Paris, staying with a woman in her seventes whom she had never met but knew through a friend. Juliane Sellam really opened up the City of Light for her, and this movie is the director’s shared experience of that time.

The film unfolds in a leisurely way, as we follow Sellam through her days spent attending to her covetable, memento-filled Montmartre apartment and the geranium plants that fill it. (“Men are like plants,” she proclaims in one of many apt aphorisms, “they require patience.”) You quickly realize how fortunate Bohdanowicz has been in her choice of subject, for Sellam is utterly charming, full of life and curiosity, immaculately preserved and with a lovely, bell-like voice as she recounts events of her life, like how she, always perfectly comme il faut, nearly cancelled her own wedding because she had broken a fingernail and—yes, let’s get to the food!—lovingly demonstrates how she makes Shabbatbread. (The film amusingy climaxes with a shared tasting of various terrines and cheeses that will have you salivating.)

Her life seems to have been one comprised mostly of elegance and good fortune, and although one might wish for more trenchant revelations on her part—say, what is it like being a French Jew, given her country’s complex history with her kind—she is mercifuly never complacent or dull. Indeed, she is an astrologer, having studied with masters, and while that fact and its follow-up here may not fascinate some viewers, it certainly does this writer.

Although hardly conceived or executed on the scale of his work, Proust kept popping into my mind as I watched this disarming film, with its meditative accretion of the fascinating little details that comprise a life. Colette, too, of course. Like Woody Allen, who—in his better days—once fantasized himself as Gigi, I also want to be a Frenchwoman when I grow up.