An Impossible Love review – Catherine Corsini's tender tragedy | Peter Bradshaw's film of the week

A daughter’s life is shaped by her father’s arrogance and her mother’s humility, in Catherine Corsini’s beautiful film

Is there any other kind? The villain of this film actually specifies three kinds of love: marital, passionate and lastly “inevitable” – the kind that supposedly lands arbitrarily on everyone once, and in such a way that the man involved can’t possibly be expected to absorb its consequences into his life. To these, Catherine Corsini’s movie adds two more: the love of a daughter for her mother and for her father. But impossibility is what all five have in common: the authentic ingredient.

This is a mother-daughter story with the erotic intensity of a love story and the pathos of a coming-of-ager – though darker, messier and more unresolved than is traditional. It is based on the 2015 novel by French author and screenwriter Christine Angot (the co-author of Claire Denis’s recent film Let the Sunshine In), which is in turn avowedly based on her own upbringing in Châteauroux in central France, returning the writer to the personal theme which has long haunted her: emotional cruelty and abuse.

The Belgian actor Virginie Efira (last seen in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle and the Netflix comedy Call My Agent!) gives a superbly intelligent and sympathetic performance as Rachel, a young woman from a Jewish background in 1950s France, working as a secretary and living at home with her mum and sister, her dad having long since fled. She is very beautiful in her shy, unassuming and uncomplicated way, but with self-esteem issues connected with the failure of a relationship and worries about being left on the shelf.

The very worst kind of man she could fall for now is the one who, naturally, dazzles her, and this is Philippe, played by Niels Schneider, a smoothly handsome, charismatic and educated guy with a creepily conceited way of saying how he doesn’t want commitment or marriage because of course he can’t be tied down. He gives her two books by his favourite author – Friedrich Nietzsche. It is a sign of how very insufferable he is to become. When Rachel becomes pregnant, Philippe effectively disappears, turning his former lover into a single mother. It is Rachel’s lifelong mission as their daughter grows up simply to make Philippe acknowledge his fatherhood legally. Their daughter Chantal is played by Estelle Lescure as a teenager and by Jehnny Beth as a young woman. Finally, Philippe consents to be a part of Chantal’s life, and this is a catastrophe.

Emotional power … Jehnny Beth and Virginie Efira in An Impossible Love
Emotional power … Jehnny Beth and Virginie Efira in An Impossible Love Photograph: PR

Efira shows how Rachel’s humility and acceptance amount to a kind of self-abasement and self-harm. She is like one of the young mothers that Philip Larkin sees in the children’s playground in his poem Afternoons: “Something is pushing them / To the side of their own lives.” As for Philippe, he is simply intolerable, and Schneider shows how he is arrogant, supercilious, casually antisemitic, with a way of making it clear that Rachel’s needs are not important. At one stage, he even says he can’t help her and Chantal “because my life takes up so much of my time”. Tellingly, when they are reunited after a while apart, he saunters up with his hands in his pockets, as if hugging Rachel is something that hasn’t immediately occurred to him.

I felt like reaching into the screen and strangling him – and then grabbing Rachel by the shoulders and shaking her for putting up with it. Which is how the film gets you to understand some of what Chantal is going through. Because she is seduced by him in very much the same way, thrilled by his flattering attentions and his interest in her education, talking to her about books and art. And poor Rachel, with her inferiority complex, simply accepts that this is what is going to happen. Perhaps she thinks that Chantal has somehow inherited her ex-lover’s callousness and there is nothing to be done. She has tragically misread the situation and when she shyly starts having a friendship with a new man, Franck (Gaël Kamilindi), an even greater emotional humiliation is in store.

Corsini is a film-maker who has always been drawn to the themes of female sexuality and the challenge and transgression that it represents. This is her best picture so far. She invests the relationship between Chantal and Rachel with enormous power and their final encounter is almost unbearably emotional. Chantal learns that some kinds of love are possible after all.

Contributor

Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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