Madeleine Collins and Brian and Charles
By Marc Glassman
Antoine Barraud, director & script w/Helena Klotz
Starring: Virginie Efira (Judith/Margot/Madeleine), Quim Gutierrez (Abdel), Bruno Salomone (Melvil), Jacqueline Bisset, Loise Benguerel (Ninon), Valerie Donzelli (Madeleine Reynal), Nadav Lapid (Kurt), Thomas Gioria (Joris), Francois Rostain (Francis)
A psychological thriller with more than a hint of Hitchcock in its storytelling and crafty deployment of its central character, Madeleine Collins is the kind of film that has appealed to European and North American arthouse audiences for decades. It’s got a mystery that certainly teases the viewer: why and how is a beautiful woman in her early forties—let’s call her Madeleine though Judith or Margot could do—maintaining two lives, married (or at least living together) with Melvil, a rising orchestra conductor and Abdel, a handsome younger man, whose career has never launched? With both partners, Madeleine is a devoted mother, though she is clearly more enamoured with Ninon, Abdel’s young daughter than with Joris and Francis, her moody teenaged sons with Melvil. But why is she maintaining her double life and how much do her partners know about her duplicity?
Director and co-scriptwriter Antoine Barraud is able to keep his central mystery alive for the greater part of the film and as long as he does so, Madeleine Collins maintains the veneer of the kind of quality drama that lovers of Daphne du Maurier and Dorothy Sayers might embrace. There are beautifully evoked scenes of Judith (as she’s called with Melvil) at concert halls and receptions, hearing performances by her best friend, the singer Madeleine Reynal, working with her husband as conductor. Just as attractively, but in a different key, she’s a passionately committed mother to Ninon, who seems to need her obsessively.
Then there’s the third Judith or Margot, who is a brilliant translator, working for a company that employs her services constantly. And then there’s the fourth iteration, who uses her translation job to purportedly travel to Poland and Germany to conferences that never happen so that she can shuttle more easily between France, where Melvil and her sons live and Switzerland, where Abdel and Ninon have their place.
Madeleine Collins hits a high point when Judith/Margot/Madeleine begin to see their life unravel. Leading a double life is complicated and even more so when you have to construct fictions to justify your already complex existence. There are wonderful scenes where Barraud’s main character has to skillfully represent herself in ever-more confusing identities. Though the film is a genre piece, it has moments where central questions of identity and motivation are addressed. At those points, it reaches a level of complexity and artistry that are truly worthwhile.
As is too often the case with even the best genre fiction, the piper must be paid: the story must be told. There is, one must admit, a car chase scene, an arrest, a sequence in a prison and a couple of moments of humiliation. Such are the dictates of the form. But Antoine Barraud plays out the scenes quickly and keeps his eye as it should be, on his main character.
A word here on Virginie Efira, who plays Judith/Margot/Madeleine: magnificent. A former TV presenter and as a young beauty, a weather girl, Efira has emerged out of a very long apprenticeship in her forties as a superb actor. She’ll never have the career of Moreau or Signoret, but Efira is terrific in this film.
And another word: playing Efira’s mother is Jacqueline Bisset. She has a scene, simply staring at her daughter with astonishing clarity, which is worth the price of admission to the film. Bisset, still a beauty at 77, and a true acting pro, is deserving of accolades—and maybe a bit of love.
Is Madeleine Collins a film to be recommended? You have to love high-style, stately paced mysteries, with well-dressed people acting enigmatically in service of a complex plot to truly embrace it. But it that’s the kind of cognac you like to ingest, please be my guest. I may have one with you.
Brian and Charles
Jim Archer, director
David Earl & Charles Hayward, script
Starring: David Earl (Brian), Chris Hayward (Charles), Louise Brealey (Hazel), Jamie Michie (Eddie)
Note: Will be released on June 17
There’s a certain kind of film that the Sundance Film Festival crowd embraces called “quirky” and a certain kind of traditional entertainment in England called “twee” and when the two get together, you end up with a quaint, odd and delicate work that can be embraced, but only in moderation. Such a piece is Brian and Charles, a tale of an eccentric incompetent Welsh inventor who miraculously creates a walking, talking robot out of parts from a broken-down washing machine. It’s the sort of nice idea that reminds one of spending an afternoon with a strange, aging relative, who then insists on staying for the evening with you, turning something moderately lovely into an awkward experience.
Brian and Charles first took shape as a short, which played at Sundance and other festivals pre-COVID, and by all accounts, was quite successful. The current feature version retains the initial inspiration but necessarily has to expand it. Brian’s loneliness as a handyman and aspirational inventor is no longer answered by the arrival of his robot friend, Charles. Now, his quiet affection for a neighbourhood lass, Hazel, and she for him, is made to flourish, thanks to Charles’ awkward but effective insistence on the two spend time with him.
The film flounders at mid-point, just when something delightful—or confrontational–could have taken place. We see how Brian and his pal Charles play darts, dance and act like boys together, but their day-to-day activity never evolves into something interesting. We see the two in a montage sequence, having fun, to the Sixties Turtles’ hit “Happy Together.” Nice, but not enough. This is a film about conquering isolation, but the script doesn’t play that out in any way that’s moving or revelatory.
A full-length film needs conflict and a complicated plot. The one provided here is, quite frankly, not strong enough. The Welsh village where Brian lives, has a bully, Eddie, who hosts a bonfire every summer. Apart from Hazel, Eddie is the first person to truly encounter Charles, and his first impulse is buying him. When Brian refuses, Eddie steals the robot and then, inexplicably, tires of him, and decides to make Charles part of the conflagration. Of course, Brian and Hazel can’t let that happen and Eddie has to fight them for Charles.
I hope I’m not giving too much away to suggest that the ending isn’t nightmarish.
Watching the film, which plays out at a leisurely pace, it occurred to me that Brian and Charles would have worked better with young adults in the leads. The big confrontation is, after all, with the neighbourhood bully and the relationship between Brian and Hazel is remarkably chaste. With Charles’ predilection for cabbage and the threesomes’ love of cheese, I was reminded happily of the great British animation series Wallace and Gromit and the wonderful Lewis Carroll verse which, in parody, could read “Of cabbages and cheese/And why the sea is boiling hot/And pigs have wings.”
One can only regard a film that evokes Harry Potter and Alice in Wonderland with the greatest of affection. Brian and Charles is a film with its heart in the right place. It could’ve done better but I don’t mind. It’s a piece of work worth seeing at some point, probably on a screening service.