Dir: Marc Dugain | Cast: Josephine Japy, Olivier Gourmet, Valerie Bonneton, Cesar Domboy | Drama, France/Belgium 103′
Another Balzac novel hits the big screen: this time his early 19th tale about the evils of capitalism and family inheritance, sombrely adapted by Senegal born director Marc Dugain.
Eugenie Grandet is a dour and joyless story and Dugain does little to lift it above the confines of the page despite thoughtful performances from Josephine Japy in the lead role, and Olivier Gourmet as her vehement property-dealer father Felix whose stinginess and greed makes her life a misery at a time when self-realisation was impossible for ordinary women.
Saumur 1819 during the Bourbon Restoration is the setting, and endless views of dripping rain and dank mornings establish the grim milieu where Eugenie Grandet and her mother (Bonneton) endure a monotonous bourgeois existence, her father poncing around the countryside doing deals and pretending to be down on his luck. Although the reality is quite different.
Felix Grandet is not a good father. Frugal, possessive and emotionally remote, he keeps his wife and daughter on a tight budget, making a big deal out of giving Eugenie a single gold coin for her dowry. Eugénie spends her days sewing and dreaming of love and when her cousin Charles (Domboy) arrives to stay she is completely taken with his dashing good looks and suave Parisian manners. So much so she falls in love with him – rather too quickly – offering her only worldly possession when it emerges that his father has killed himself due to mounting debts. And when the mean-spirited Felix finds out what has happened he further castigates Eugenie, imprisoning her in her bedroom.
Gilles Porte creates a morose atmosphere in the darkened interiors of the Grandet household, often softly highlighting the characters’ faces in the style of Caravaggio, and in Eugenie’s case this accentuates her qualities of gentleness and devotion. And although Dugrain’s script successfully condenses the novel into a reasonable running time, it doesn’t quite give enough weight to Charles and Eugenie’s love affair which after all carries the novel’s uplifting emotional freight, much needed to counterbalance all the endless misery. Joséphine Japy is brilliant as the innocent, long-suffering heroine in a world where women’s happiness and wellbeing depended entirely on the integrity of their menfolk. MT