Mi Iubita Mon Amour review – touching debut from Noémie Merlant

The Portrait of a Lady on Fire star has made a superbly low-key film about the ill-fated flirtations a teenager and older woman

Noémie Merlant is the French acting star who two years ago helped make Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire a colossal critical hit at Cannes. Now she provides one of the festival’s incidental pleasures with her engaging if flawed directorial feature debut, presented here as a special screening. She has written it with her co-star, the emerging Romany actor Gimi-Nicolae Novaci, whom she discovered and cast as a nonprofessional in Shakira, the short film she directed in 2019 about gypsy communities in Paris. There is a definite screen chemistry between them here, and at times Mi Iubita (Romany for “my love”) Mon Amour almost comes across like a straight Call Me By Your Name.

Merlant plays Jeanne, a young woman who works in the film industry and is about to get married. With a bunch of her girlfriends, she heads off on a daring hen weekend in Romania. But when their car gets stolen at a petrol station, Jeanne and her squad find themselves dependent on a family of strangers who take them in, played by Novaci and his actual family. Nino (Novaci) is a heartstoppingly beautiful and sweet boy, almost like a young Cillian Murphy, who tells the amused young women that he is 21, but he’s horribly busted one day when his mum and dad announce it’s Nino’s 17th birthday. Novaci can’t stop smiling in Jeanne’s company and he’s very obviously got a thing for her. There’s some major flirting, but also major drama when it becomes clear that Nino’s family are being menaced by local gangsters. Finally, Jeanne and the others finally head off to their original seaside destination by train, and Nino impulsively jumps aboard with them.

I loved the scene between Jeanne and Nino when she presses him for the number of women that he has had sex with – and whether or not that number is in fact “zero”. It is very beguiling as poor, puppyishly innocent Nino is transparently wondering whether to invent past girlfriends, or ’fess up to his virgin status, and which is more likely get him anywhere with Jeanne. Inevitably, Jeanne’s fiance shows up in Romania for a surprise visit.

Mi Iubita Mon Amour works best when it is just about people hanging around talking and laughing; in theory, these static conversational scenes should be dull, but they are in fact very watchable, especially when Nino’s father gets emotional as he tells the women how much hardship they have suffered. That scene, presumably improvised, looked very real. But it’s less convincing when the gangsters show up, whose ultimate purpose seems to be providing a spurious moment of drama at the very end. Merlant and Covaci finally have no very satisfactory conclusion for their love story. Perhaps they decided none was possible in art or in life. It’s an engaging piece of work from Merlant who has a real sense of directing an ensemble of actors.

• Mi Iubita Mon Amour screened on 13 July at the Cannes film festival.

Contributor

Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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