A little incest goes a long way in Marguerite and Julien, the new film from French director Valerie Donzelli. Spanning the young lives of the titular siblings as their love for each other deepens, it is like watching a PR campaign from someone who thinks Game of Thrones has given incest a bad name. What is surprising is how sympathetic Donzelli keeps these star-crossed lovers, both spawned from the same parents.
Marguerite and Julien is largely set in the fairy tale chateau where the siblings live their carefree childhoods under the supervision of their well meaning parents and the stern religious uncle of their father. They are inseparable, locked into a deep love for each other that means their third sibling Philippe is barely noticed. The attraction between them does not go unnoticed, and soon the uncle is recommending that Julien is shipped off to boarding school to keep them apart. As the pair grow up separated from each other, Marguerite remains at the chateau but rejects all suitors, waiting for her true love to return. Much later, when Julien does finally return, their once innocent games take on a sexual dimension and society does not approve.
Constructed as a tale being told to what seems to be an orphanage full of young girls, Marguerite and Julien has a distinctly anti-realist feel for the most part. While the bulk of the film follows the siblings, the infrequent cutting back to this storytelling device as the girls listen intently to the tale, reminds of the fantasy aspect. Marguerite and Julien are referred to as if they really did once live, but they are mythic, fascinating deviants whose story is never certain, even to those who tell it. This, and other techniques, invests the film with a jaunty playfulness as even though there are dark themes and a doomed love story at the centre, Donzelli keeps the audience a little distanced from a real emotional connection with the characters.
Donzelli also has a wonderful knack for self-consciously stylistic spasms. Some scenes open with the characters frozen in place. Instead of using a freeze frame, Donzelli makes it clear that the actors are holding still, as the camera moves around the scene, exploring the different characters and waiting for the action to begin. There is plenty to remind the viewer that this is a performance, almost like watching theatre, except that Donzelli is energised by the possibilities of playing with film. It could have gone further and there could have been more of a point to it all, but Marguerite and Julien has enough style to keep its romance from becoming a total snooze.
The 16th/17th century world of the film is beautifully designed with the family chateau coming complete with a steamy greenhouse, romantic towers and secluded attics where the illicit attraction between the siblings can be explored. The period costumes use colour to convey the development of the characters, and to show both the bond between Marguerite and Julien as well as the stifling nature of the supporting characters that desperately attempt to separate them. When Marguerite is married off, the tone takes a slightly darker tone but the sibling’s love of course refuses to die.
The screenplay is largely a little flat, though there is chemistry between Anais Demoustier as Marguerite and Jeremie Elkaim as Julien. Demoustier gets the most chance to demonstrate her talent, even though Elkaim should have the more interesting role as the partner who has some sense of restraint. However, the film never fully explores this, instead getting a little carried away with a sense of adventure and free love.
As films about incest go, Marguerite and Julien could have been much worse. The direction is often inventive and the visuals distracting enough. The story is the problem here, and though the stars play their roles well, there isn’t enough to make Marguerite and Julien a really memorable couple for the ages, even if they are brother and sister.
About the Author
Peter Turner Senior Reporter & Critic for Tastic Film Magazine.