Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Winging it

Ricky 2010 France (89 minutes) written and directed by François Ozon.
This movie adapts a dark modern fairy tale by Rose Tremain that adds a dimension to the concept of a child ‘taking off’ at the mall, losing its original edge in a fruitier cocktail.
Tremain’s story, Moth, set in an American trailer park, centers on the emotionally overtaxed, separated mother of two with a difficult infant who develops an unsettling physical feature, and the consequences of this development. It has a sharp, cruel ending, not unlike some of the Grimms’ tales.
Ozon and his writing collaborator Emmanuèle Bernheim refashioned and padded Tremain’s sparer original American Calvinist hardwood furniture, moving it to France and making it more Roman Catholic and rococo.
The movie generally follows the story’s plot lines, but the changes make the tale wobble. The main problem is that the central role of the mother as Ozon and Bernheim conceive her—the actress is just following a script and direction—makes for a squishy center, too wishy-washy as a character to hold the story together. In the short story, the mother has a brittle toughness that snaps, where in the movie she just flakes away.
The film is worth seeing nevertheless.
Ozon sets the table by opening his story with a scene from the middle, in which a social worker counsels an abandoned working mother at the end of her tether with a small child and difficult baby. His narrative then proceeds chronologically from the beginning, roughly a year earlier. It moves in episodes, covering a period of about two years in a loose sequence of scenes. An all-seeing camera is his narrator.
The working mother is Katie (Alexandra Lamy), a factory worker, who begins the story a single mother leading a quiet life in a French high-rise housing project with her seven-year-old daughter Lisa (Mélusine Mayance, the child Sarah in Sarah’s Key 2012).
One day at work Katie has sex in a restroom with a new coworker, Paco Sanchez (Sergi Lopez, the cruel stepfather in Pan’s Labyrinth)—a random sexual encounter that seems unlikely for a stressed-out mother on a smoke break at work. This liaison leads to a relationship in which Paco moves in with Katie and Lisa; he and Katie produce the Ricky of the title.
Daughter Lisa is responsible beyond her young years. Her ‘objections’ to her ‘new father’ feel more like adult misgivings about Katie’s judgment than any resentment at being ‘replaced’ in her mother’s affection. Lisa as though resigns herself to the fact: all right, now I have two of these monsters to deal with—Ab-Fab, French style.
Along comes Ricky (Arthur Peyret). Katie as though awakens and scales untold heights of protective mothering which result in driving Paco away. Ricky develops his ‘unsettling physical feature.’ Katie gives the thing a stab but clearly is out of her depth. Ricky provides Lisa, with her little pink fairy wings, tiara and wand, something decidedly more interesting to take care of than her doll.
The little family’s secret flies the coop in an inspired scene at a big box Hypermarché Cora at Christmas time. (In Tremain’s story, this scene takes place in a more prosaic Kroger’s grocery store in Knoxville, Tennessee.)
A media circus ensues; a hang-dog Paco returns with gently-used mixed motives; none of this lasts long. Ricky takes off; Paco stays.
Then Katie, possibly intending to drown herself (as does the mother in the short story), has a Bergmanesque medieval ‘vision’ at the lake—or else a kind of rococo Annunciation. She returns home renewed and inspired to start over, all wet and flakier than ever, to Paco, who-only-ever-wanted-things-to-work-out-all-right-after-all, and Lisa, concerned as before about Mom’s woolly judgment.
Life goes on. Paco assumes Katie’s parenting duties. Katie is pregnant again, this time with a thousand-mile gaze and a New Age smile awaiting the Second Coming. And the audience is left trying to iron all these wrinkles into continuous narrative pleats.
But Ozon’s version is worth seeing, especially the scene at the big box store and Katie’s lakeside vision. Ricky and his ‘special feature,’ and Lisa, are the film’s best made parts, along with the haunting original score composed, arranged and directed by Philippe Rombi, who also played the piano solos.
Tremain’s title, Moth, refers in part to Ricky’s attraction to light. Light also attracts Ozon’s Ricky, but as a real baby with a human face and personality he feels like a more evolved legendary creature than the fabulous figure of the story. Ozon’s Ricky is less a moth to light than a form of New Age Ikaros.
MP encourages readers to find Tremain’s short story in her 2005 collection, The Darkness of Wallis Simpson. In the remarkable title story, the longest of the dozen, the dying, senile Duchess of Windsor searches her colorful, passionate history unable to name ‘the pale little man’ that so often turns up in the background. 
In contrast to Ozon’s camera, the narrator of Tremain’s Moth is Annie, a friend and trailer park neighbor of Pete, the baby’s mother.
Annie is a middle-aged working class woman whom nothing particularly fazes. She speaks in flat folk tones that alternate between irony and self-deprecation about what she saw, as though to say, ‘Now you may not buy this, but I am here to tell you what I saw with my own two eyes.’
The children have the same names. Annie tells us that Pete supports the family by making appliqué items she sells at a craft venue through a ‘hippie’ with whom she has a ‘Platonic relationship.’ Chester, the father of both children, is a Joycean Cyclops, an abusive, overweight fireman ‘with a big appetite’ who leaves Pete for a woman half his age. He comes back in the midst of the media circus to cash in on the baby, and then disappears.
Tremain’s tale comes to a dark end. Pete’s sewing machine, the source of her livelihood, becomes the instrument of her destruction.
Annie does not ask questions while the story unfolds, so all we have is her word via Tremain’s able craft and our imaginations.
Ozon’s main challenge was that his silent, all-seeing narrator had to resolve the questions Annie did not ask in order to fabulize this fairy tale into pictures. The central conceit still requires an audience to suspend disbelief. But unlike a DreamWorks extravaganza, for instance, Ozon’s sophisticated technical wizardry brings off what is essentially a discreet domestic story.

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