Family Traumas

Based on the 2015 autobiographical book by Christine Angot, Catherine Corsini’s An Impossible Love is a shocking tale that is almost unrelenting in its unhappiness. It’s the story of a woman and her persistent love for a man for whom the term “cad” just doesn’t cover it. Spanning four decades, the narrative begins in 1958, when the innocent young Rachel (Belgian actress Virginie Efira) becomes pregnant via the smarmy Parisian translator Philippe (Niels Schneider) that she meets in the office canteen.

Despite his early attentions, this “happy” news sees him back off, claiming no responsibility as he refuses to marry Rachel or recognise their resulting daughter, Chantal. With Chantal unable to carry his family name, her mother ploughs on, somehow raising her daughter alone (no mean feat in the 1960s). Unfortunately, for her and Chantal, she keeps a fire in her heart burning for the cruel, manipulative Philippe, who at one point arrives to tell Rachel he’s now married to another but it shouldn’t hamper their casual get-togethers.

Typical of his brutish behaviour, Philippe can’t resist keeping the emotionally fragile Rachel in his reach; but the film really takes a dark turn when, as the years pass, he gets to know his daughter finally. With Chantal played by four actresses across the ages (including newcomer Estelle Lescure, in the character’s teen years, and rock singer Jehnny Beth, as an adult), it’s an ambitious exercise that Corsini attempts, and with the help of Frederic Baillehaiche’s editing the transitions are largely achieved, despite a rather disjointed final act.

While Angot is something of a controversial figure in France, she’s less known outside of her native country – although some may recognise her as the co-writer of Claire Denis’ well-liked recent effort, Let The Sunshine In, with Juliette Binoche. Corsini, meanwhile, has a track record in tough emotional dramas, after her 2009 effort Leaving with Kristin Scott-Thomas. This has a similar robustness to it, with a story that will inevitably prompt lively debate.

Throughout, Efira is excellent, even if the ageing make-up in her later years is not so convincing, as she makes her character’s attraction to this foul man somehow feel real and understandable. Opposite her, Schneider – who starred in Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats – is equally compelling. Together, they forge a drama that will tear at your guts.

James Mottram

An Impossible Love opens on 4 January. For more details, visit Curzon Artificial Eye.

1. All images courtesy of Curzon.