Seventh Heaven

The Boston Phoenix

DIRECTED BY: Benoît Jacquot

REVIEWED: 09-28-98

The signs of breakdown in a relationship are invariably more symptomatic than articulated, and so, despite the pop-therapy industry, are the steps toward a restoration. That's one of the themes of Benoît Jacquot's Seventh Heaven, an elusive, fragile, insidiously devastating collection of scenes from a struggling marriage whose pallid, dreamlike surface conceals depths of turmoil, desire, and blindly seeking love.

Sandrine Kiberlain, who distinguished herself as one of France's premier young actresses in her headstrong and vulnerable performance in 1995's To Have (Or Not), here is cryptic and seductive as Mathilde, wife of Nico (Vincent Lindon), a self-assured, no-nonsense orthopedic surgeon. Mathilde of late has taken to skipping out of her nominal work at the law office of her mother, Béatrice (Francine Bergé), and, in her spare time, pocketing toys without paying for them (these she adds to a growing collection kept unseen in a trash bag in her closet). Then there are the fainting spells, one of which occurs at a dinner party as she watches, blandly smiling, her husband standing on his head smoking a cigarette and observes out of the corner of her eye a grumpy-looking mystery man (François Berléand).

He proves to be a psychiatrist, and by chance Mathilde spots him the next day and follows him to a department store. She is nabbed in the act of shoplifting and faints, awakening to a lunch with the doctor, who probes her marital discontents, analyzes the feng shui of her apartment and suggests changes, and sets up a series of appointments.

Some of her problems are standard issue. Nico, despite his red-blooded façade, has been less than a tiger in bed; Mathilde has never had an orgasm. What she does have is unresolved issues with her father; when she was six, he died, presumably in an accident, at the age of 29, the same age she is now. The doctor readily hypnotizes her, taking her back to that time, and she recalls her father telling her the same story she tells her son at bedtime, about a boy transformed into an elf who's taken away by geese. Then she remembers her mother on the phone saying something about suicide. Thus unburdened, she wakes up and says, "Doctor, I've just had an orgasm. Thank you."

Case closed. Well, hardly. Far from being settled by these Freudian and Jungian excursions, Mathilde's troubles and opportunities are just beginning, as are Nico's. The hypnotist's spell nudges the ids of both, and clueless Nico, ignorant of his wife's "sessions," is shattered by his wife's new-found sensuality, a dread compounded by a tête-à-tête with her still-pretty-and-looking-for-a-good-time mother, in which his manhood is questioned.

Drinking heavily, he compensates with a quickie with his office assistant, an infidelity paralleled by the doctor's sleazy sleight-of-hand while Mathilde is under hypnosis. Played by Vincent Lindon, Nico is the blunt and self-possessed seeming antithesis of Mathilde's passive sufferer. His own venture into hypnotherapy is ham-handed and hilarious, and the two seem catapulted toward a confrontation that will shatter their placid ménage.

Like real life, though, Seventh Heaven lacks clear answers or questions; though precise, it is teasingly ambiguous, its revelations as evanescent and beguiling as Kiberlain's protean face. Jacquot's film is trance-like, the shadow side of his rigorously naturalistic tour de force A Single Girl. Whereas that film, also about a disintegrating love affair, took place in real time, with a jagged immediacy whose rough edges sparked conflict and repressed emotion, Heaven drifts through a kind of dream time in which events prove a tentative veil pierced by magical talismans -- the ring that is Mathilde's sole legacy from her father, the creepy little children's story about flight and terror.

Jacquot's style in Seventh Heaven is distinguished by the blackout, a gentle fade to darkness followed by an ellipsis and a sudden return to a brightly lit scene like the world newly born. It invokes a narcoleptic rhythm that is soothing and jarring and leaves you with the feeling of things not quite remembered or fully grasped. If peace and reconciliation are to come, Jacquot suggests, it will be in such darkness, broken only by the halting words of lovers who have at last realized they do not know who the other is.

--Peter Keough

Other Films by Benoît Jacquot
A Single Girl

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