It’s hard not to read a degree of self-justification into Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi’s (mostly) French-language comedy-drama “A Castle In Italy,” so we’re not really going to try. We took notice of the film in advance mainly because it made headlines as the Cannes Competition’s sole entry from a female director, but as handsomely shot and occasionally diverting as it’s also terrifyingly bourgeois. For every moment of comedy that lands or drama that touches a nerve, there are ten of “why the bloody hell should I bloody care?” or “cry me a river, you had to sell your Brueghel.” Bruni-Tedeschi undoubtedly has talent both as an actress (she takes the lead role here) and behind the camera , but we can’t help but feel that her dramatic strengths -- familial relationships, odd romances, religious (specifically Catholic) dilettantism -- could have played in a less rarefied setting to more universal sympathy. As it is, detailing the gradual decline in fortune of a rich European family, her film amounts to little more than an occasionally charming glimpse at people whose life events we might relate to, but whose lifestyle keeps getting in the way.
The film opens with Louise (Bruni-Tedeschi) having a chance encounter with the the young, ridiculously attractive Nathan (Louis Garrel), a disgruntled actor who recognises her from her own abandoned film career and is immediately smitten. Louise, however is on her way to the titular castle in Italy, which was her childhood home, where she meets her mother and beloved, ailing, AIDS-stricken brother Ludovic (Filippo Timi) and they discuss whether or not they should open the place up to the public to offset the heavy maintenance costs, and avoid the eventuality of selling. Louise has airy, clearly never-to-be-acted-on notions about giving it up to be a summer camp for children or a drug treatment center, while her brother firmly vetoes any possibility of having the public allowed into the house at all. Back in Paris, Louise and Nathan strike up a romance despite the difference in age and outlook (especially regarding kids) but eventually she persuades him to participate in an initially successful course of IVF. Her brother begins to deteriorate, their estranged childhood friend Serge turns up asking for money while a potentially injurious tax audit threatens, and the romance between Louise and Nathan hits a rough patch. Subplots abound, including an uncharacteristically zany interlude with a chair that reportedly makes women pregnant, an open air soup kitchen that Louise volunteers at, and Nathan’s director father turning out to have known Louise (and probably also been in love with her, natch) back in the day.
Bruni-Tedeschi is herself a charming presence and has a way with a joke and a surreal visual -- even in the midst of a funeral scene, the priest turns up late and has to scuttle down the aisle rolling his wheelie suitcase behind him; an incident in the IVF clinic in which Louise freaks out because she’s wearing a bracelet with someone else’s name is a very Woody Allen-esque moment (in a good way); and her on-off flirtation with Catholicism leads to some nicely observed moments, even if the aforementioned pregnancy chair gag is milked too far. But as much as Bruni-Tedeschi doesn’t mind coming across as klutzy and inept, we couldn’t escape the feeling that those moments were there to make her character endearingly fallible and a bit kooky, and in all the ways that really matter, she finds it hard to laugh at herself, or to cast her character in a less than charming, self-exculpatory light. So when it comes to the actually ridiculous aspects of her privileged lifestyle, like the fact she lives alone but has a butler, or that she becomes upset at an auction (when they’ve just sold the Brueghel for 2.6 million euro) because of some sort of ill-defined emotional attachment -- these things are played without any real self-awareness. As is her sad, wistful reply to her mother when she asks why Louise gave up her acting career: “I wanted to make room in my life… for life.” Her sad wistfulness is a luxury that not many could afford.
Some sharper commentary on the absurdities, injustices and contradictions of her world could have elevated the film immeasurably. But for all the film’s lightness, what it seems she really wants to do is show that the very rich are as capable of grief and loneliness and disappointment as the rest of us. She pretty much succeeds, but frankly, bully for that: the rich may have to wade through the same emotional shit as the poor but after they come out the other side, they’re still better off than the have-nots (Louise would probably have a butler waiting with a towel). If that’s the point of the film, it’s kind of a pointless point. Other perspectives are few and far between and even then undercut: Serge, the fallen-on-hard-times alcoholic childhood friend who could have been written to be our window to a different point of view -- the ‘ordinary’ friend of the “Prince and Princess of Castagneto” as she and her brother were dubbed -- is instead portrayed as a venal boor, whose ultimate motivation is a bitterness borne of envy and thwarted love for her, and her family. Similarly a scene in which we hear the castle’s staff discuss the family’s failings seems initially to be a belated attempt at a little objectivity (it’s here that Mexican telenovela “The Rich Also Cry” is referenced)… until the camera pulls back to reveal a sobbing, eavesdropping Jeanne (Ludovic’s wife) and it seems we’re actually supposed to feel for how unwittingly hurtful those mild criticisms were instead.
Sometimes playing it safe is the more dangerous route, and we wish that Bruni-Tedeschi had challenged herself to step out of the uber-privileged French/Italian haute bourgeoisie milieu where she clearly feels most comfortable (as a member of the financially, socially and genetically gifted Bruni clan -- yes, she is Carla’s sister), or to portray it more dispassionately. Instead, we get the pretty but fleeting pleasures of “A Castle in Italy,” which become in retrospect increasingly empty. Maybe it’s just our reverse-snobbery at work, but we can’t help but feel that characters who already have so much need to work a little harder if they want our sympathy too. [C+]