Just when I declare that Benoît Jacquot seems “incapable of making an uninteresting film,” Seventh Heaven (Le Septiéme ciel) opens in American movie theaters. Watching this one was a little too much like seeing a Woody Allen movie that’s been dubbed into French and then subtitled in English, with all the wit and most of the story lost in the translation. Jacquot’s tale of a shift in the balance of sexual power between married Parisians who submit to the scrutiny of dubious psychiatrists has a gentle touch but is either too obvious or too obscure for my own taste.
Sandrine Kiberlain is pleasantly pale as Mathilde, a sleepy 28-year-old given to fits of kleptomania and faintness — that is, she has a habit of wandering into shops, stuffing merchandise in her pockets, and then fainting dead away when confronted by security. Vincent Lindon is very good as her husband, Nico, a 39-year-old surgeon who can’t satisfy his wife but thanks her, anyway, for not faking orgasms. After Mathilde has a chance encounter with a creepy hypnotherapist (Francois Berleans), he takes her to lunch and then to his office, where he helps, um, solve her problems. The less open-minded Nico is subsequently puzzled by Mathilde’s interest in feng shui principles (she rearranges the apartment to reorient the bed) and startled by her new libidinal qualities. In a deeply befuddled funk, he even tries therapy himself.
Jacquot is best known in the U.S. for 1995’s La Fille Seule (A Single Girl), an intimate pas de deux between his camera and belle de jour Virginie Ledoyen, playing a young Frenchwoman working at a Paris hotel and deciding whether to let her boyfriend stick around in her life. His Marianne and Les Desenchantee (La Désenchantée) confirmed a real talent for character studies of strong women dealing with the concept of independence. By contrast, men in Jacquot’s films seem luggish at best and downright sinister at worst. Here, the stony therapists have questionable motives, and the hapless Nico is both closed-minded and insensitive to Mathilde’s neuroses.
At its best, Jacquot does manage to invest this pencil sketch of a marriage with gentle humor, mostly in the person of a weary, befuddled Lindon. He also monkeys with the question of whether the two therapists depicted are charlatans, and seems to come down on the skeptical side. At the film’s very end, there’s the r-ather optimistic suggestion that life may soon return to normal for the couple, who should be better off for their renewed sensitivity to one another. It’s certainly a brighter picture of married life than Jacquot has drawn in the past.
But of the four Jacquot films I’ve seen, this is the only one that never manages to truly engage the audience with its lead character. Part of this has to do with her story running out of steam somewhere near the film’s halfway mark, when the focus shifts to a suspicious Nico. The fainting Mathilde is more conspicuously frail than the usual headstrong Jacquot protagonist, which probably limits audience identification with her. And finally, Jacquot decided to shoot this one in scope, and the demands of widescreen photography seem to have limited his ability to move in close on her face. In more ways than one, Seventh Heaven keeps its distance.
Directed by Benoît Jacquot
Written by Jérôme Beaujour and Jacquot
Cinematography by Romaine Winding
Edited by Pascale Chavance
Starring Sandrine Kiberlain and Vincent Lindon
Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic)