Fêted and eternally fabulous, Isabelle Huppert is this year’s Berlin Film Festival honorary Golden Bear laureate for her life’s work so far, with an accompanying program of some of her most celebrated films. About Joan is her newest, screened out of competition as a Berlinale Special gala (though Huppert was unable to make the trip to Berlin after testing positive for Covid). That is quite a lot of weight to carry for Laurent Larivière’s slender story about the malleability of memory. That subject in itself, broad and deep as it is, may be too much for this rickety film to bear, even with Huppert’s flickering brilliance in the title role.
Joan first speaks to us across the dashboard of her car, telling us who she is: a successful publisher, the child of an Irish father and a French mother who gave her an Irish name nobody in France knows how to pronounce. She used to think she knew the story of how her parents met on a ship, that she even had a photograph of them together on deck, but she now realizes she imagined that picture and really, she has no idea. Well yes, Joan, it’s an uncertain world. Thus is the stage set.
After this arch prologue, we enter the first of several episodes in her life. The first is set in present-day Paris, where Joan runs into Doug, an Irishman she met decades earlier in Dublin, where she worked as an au pair. They reminisce; they hug and, as she rests her head against his chest, she drifts off into the past when, as a young woman (Freya Mavor) she first happens upon Doug (now played by Stanley Townsend) picking pockets at a railway station. She falls hard for his cheeky smile and alluring criminality, which inevitably leads to trouble. She is back in France when she discovers she has also fallen pregnant. Her son Nathan, she has informed us at the outset, is the great achievement of her life. Of course, all mothers say that, she adds. But it’s true!
As it turns out, a good deal of what Joan says is not true. Larivière’s declared aim was to make a film about the way we invent, reconstruct and shelve memories to make life more bearable; we tell ourselves stories, much as movies tell stories that we believe while we’re watching them. As a thesis, that sounds potentially fruitful. But as the story turns in on itself, asking us to believe things that are then shown to be lies — within the context of a film, of course, which is unarguably a lie anyway — it just feels frustrating. We invest in a story, only in order to have it ripped away from us.
The point, says Larivière, is not to stage a big reveal when the truth emerges. What he wants us to do is share Joan’s delusions — and not only hers — for as long as it takes to understand why she clings to them. Her partner Tim (Lars Eidinger) — a caricature of a tormented German novelist bubbling over with sturm und drang — gives her plenty of space for her own oddities.
After Joan’s encounter with Doug, she flees to her family home on the Riviera, where Nathan (Swann Arlaud) — grown up, accomplished and living in Montréal — joins her. Their shared past is duly revisited and rewritten. Somewhere in there is another story about Joan’s mother, who deserted her father in middle-age for an adventurous new life in Japan with her karate teacher. Wacky, right? There were moments when I wished I could have joined her.
The mother’s story is one of several playful interludes; it is not all about the tragedy and madness that we know must be waiting at the center of the story’s maze. What to make, for example, of the scene in which a woman has very slimy sex with a giant octopus? I’m not against sex between women and tentacled animals in movies, I’m just not sure it belongs in this one.
These wild swings in tone make me wonder if Larivière was sure about it himself but, as already observed, we are living here in a world of uncertainty. Thank goodness for Huppert, whose enigmatic sang-froid can be relied upon to steady the ship. And thank goodness for her own 68-year-old sense of adventure, leaping feet-first into this film that, while it may not fulfill its greatest ambitions, at least has plenty of them. She deserves all the bears at the picnic.