When you think of classic French cinema it is easy to look at the iconic romances, films like Amelie and Populaire, the kind of film that have that certain French bite to them, the sardonic wit that makes them fizzle, despite being endlessly dreamy. The kind of cinema that is easy to watch, reinvigorating a sense of passion and love that rarely sneaks into Hollywood films. However the notion of love in French films is complicated, it has a dark side with films like Blue is the Warmest Colour and A Very Long Engagement seeking to root out the pain of love, the heartbreak and the abuses we live through on a daily basis in supposedly loving relationships. An Impossible Love fits in with the latter as it is a love story, a tale of family and a scarring tale of destruction all in one.
Telling the story of Rachel (Virginie Efira), a young woman working as a secretary in 1950s rural France wondering if she is going to be alone for the rest of her life. One day she meets enigmatic and pretentious Phillipe (Niels Schneider) she surrenders to a passionate love affair. However when she finds herself pregnant, Phillipe refuses to claim responsibility pushing the limits of how far this love story can go and how much the love of a mother can trump anything else.
While it might help to define the true nature of An Impossible Love, director Catherine Corsini refuses to trap herself in something as trivial as genre. Rachel’s story is everything from romance to horror to mystery and the way Corsini plays with genres keeps you constantly unsettled, never finding a rhythm to sit in. Playing with expectations, the delicately crafted screenplay doles out its revelations and moments of triumph in increments picking characters up only to knock them right back down again. This kind of pleasure/pain seduction is intoxicating for Rachel, falling for this routine of abuse but it also proves dramatically potent for an audience with the question of how far Phillipe can push never being far from thought.
The answer to that question might just be this years best and most haunting plot twist and despite its fearlessness, this love story isn’t a pleasant watch. Gruelling from start to finish, this is a contradiction in terms. Corsini uses the beauty of the world Rachel lives in to paint a pretty picture, an idyllic locale hiding secrets and fear while a soft score lulls you into a position of safety before ripping the net away. Constantly forcing you to live in the self pity, doubt, selfishness and passive aggressive rage Rachel and by extension daughter Chantel (Estelle Lescure/Jehnny Beth) feel, thanks to Phillipe’s scarring actions.
Open ended and spanning decades, An Impossible love might seem critical of blind passions but this is a film of unsaid emotions, unfelt pain and the silent screams that come from manipulation. Placing you in the position of victim, it pushes you to question decisions and emotions, leaving you to doubt them and yourself for how naive your expectations have been. Corsini clearly knows that to tell a story of emotional abuse, the film itself must be abusive, it has to push its viewers. It is human nature to second guess and question our choices but when you watch back, you might just notice the monster Phillipe is right from the start, a villain who proves likeable and smart yet toying in his affections.
This is a masterclass in emotion and one that wouldn’t work without such strong performances by it’s four leads, especially Efira who makes Rachel placid yet venomous, compassionate yet vitriolic. A film that demands repeat viewing to pick up on all its little intricacies, Corsini has constructed a web of plot lines that seem irrelevant, branching off in different directions only to weave back into the bigger picture, sneaking up on you like psychological jump scares.
While it might not be the film you expect, it grows into something to marvel at, a quiet and intimate conversation about what we subject ourselves to based on our own self worth, what we want from the people who love us and why love itself can be so malignant. Much like Midsommar this deals with horrors in the light of day, unlike Midsommar this is all too painfully real.