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'The Girl from Paris'

'Girl From Paris' is a pastoral beauty

Friday, May 23, 2003

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

Sandrine's mother sheds tears of dramatic disapproval upon learning of her daughter's preposterous career change: Sandrine is forsaking her high-tech computer post in Paris and taking up agricultural studies: She intends to buy a farm!


RATING: Unrated but PG-13 in nature for animal violence

STARRING: Mathilde Seigner, Michel Serrault, Francoise Bette

DIRECTOR: Christian Carion


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In this, as all else, "The Girl from Paris" is nothing if not decisive. Smart, too -- tops in her aggie class. Sandrine (Mathilde Seigner) may be a bit dowdy at 30, but, reassessing after a failed love affair, she's going for a radically new and more productive solo life, sans man.

Equally shocking to mama is where she's going to do it: not down in the heartland but high up in the Rhone Alps, a place that suits her need for isolation. There, worn-out Adrien (Michel Serrault) is reluctantly selling her the dairy farm that has been in his family for generations.

Adrien is a bitter old goat with a flock of young ones -- 30 nannies and three billies. Those cool, hilly parts produce the finest fromage au chevre in Europe -- and contempt for school-trained single women who think they can run a farm. Adrien won't help her in the transition a bit. Worse, he'll be staying on, looking over her shoulder, for 18 months before moving into town.

To hell with him. Sandrine's firm resolve and hard work not only maintain the business but also turn it into a "dude dairy," advertised on the 'Net as a rural vacation spot and tourist attraction, drawing busloads of school kids and guests.

"One swallow does not a summer make," grouses Adrien, much annoyed by her early success. Hyper-critical of everything she does, he even reproves her for the way she peels too much off her potatoes: "You've never seen war."

But his grudging admiration and gradual affection will be cultivated along with the goats and a dirty little trick or two. A little tempest in the film's teapot has been brewing, stoked by animal-rights activists who consider it zoologically incorrect for scenes depicting the brutal demise of livestock: A pig is suddenly pork, a cow turns into beef, and a rabbit heads for the stew pot.

The bunny scene is no big deal. But the slaughter and bleeding of the pig (Sandrine's agricultural baptism by blood instead of water) is gruesome indeed, and the cow killing -- while not bloody -- is even worse, in a way, with a closeup of the dying animal's horrific expression. Those shots are truly upsetting, which is not to say objectionable. It's called "butchering" -- get over it! It's what happens before your steaks and chops find their way into prophylactic plastic at the Giant Eagle.

More painful is a nonviolent but graphic goat-birthing, the film's most emotionally wrenching scene -- a "small" tragedy more profound than that suffered by any of the human characters, including Sandrine, who recognizes and experiences it as such.

Such tragic moments, however, are more than counterbalanced by the stark, lyrical beauty -- and fury -- of the lopsided land. Director Christian Carion's most fabulous shot is a recurring one juxtaposing the heroine on horseback with a kind of mythical hang glider on the horizon shots. It takes its place among the most evocative film images I've ever seen.

The restrained realism of the direction is equal to that of Carion's and Eric Assous' script: narrative character study at its best, no F/X or supernatural dreck -- just a few people and a handful of animals, with two luminous performances by the leads. Seigner proves, in two intimate little dance sequences, that she can be traditionally feminine-beautiful; but she is never so beautiful as in her overalls, with her staff, herding the goats. Serrault is a facial cross between Hemingway and Carnegie, his terrific nose as topographically bumpy as his Alpine terrain. The strange, slow, natural evolution of their relationship (and nice surprise ending) make for a wonderfully unsentimental, dispassionate result.

Sole blemish on this splendid production is the lame-brained title it's saddled with for English distribution. Replacing the poetic "Une hirondelle a fait le printemps" (One Swallow Brought Spring) with the prosaic "Girl from Paris," it conveys the precisely wrong impression of an urban rather than pastoral subject. I'd like to find the dullard who dumbed it down and pound him up the side of the head with my unabridged Larousse.

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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