The French are masters at delivering fine character dramas. Now, I'm the first to admit that French films aren't always my cup of tea, people. I've seen some great French thrillers. They've got a smart touch at handling mysteries, too. Also, major kudos to some of the French period pieces I've seen in the last few years; that's some top-notch entertainment. Character dramas, though, I'll admit that I've struggled with at times. That's mostly because of the way the French writers and directors construct them. Essentially, these films revolve around the traits of the lead characters, and they explore how the various players interact because of and in spite of these strengths and weaknesses. As someone who's done a bit of acting in his day, I can appreciate a job well done, and that's what precisely what you get with DOMAIN, the directorial debut from Patric Chiha.
Pierre (played by newcomer Isaie Sultan) is a seventeen-year-old smitten with the dynamic, world-weary ways of his comely aunt, Nadia (Beatrice Dalle). They spend time together, never quite sharing so much their respective dreams as they do reflecting on Nadia's predicament and perceptions. To her, life is ordered - even mathematical - though Pierre, who early agrees, begins to uncover that it's vastly more organic. As her emotional health fades, so follows her body. All of it is a descent of her own choice, a grim reality that only Pierre truly acknowledges. By the conclusion, however, Pierre finds himself at a crossroads: either work to save his aunt - whose plunge into self-destruction now appears insurmountable - or save himself. It's an unsettling, weird, and often times darkly subversive love story with a poetic, ominous, and inescapable ending.
In short, DOMAIN works because of the constant conversation - the never-ending tête-à-tête - between the two leads. Dalle and Sultan accomplish nothing short of bona fide miracles in their onscreen pairing.
In her own mind, she's a flamboyant starlet drawn to the youthful energies of her nephew and unlikely suitor. By contrast, he's an impressionable gentleman trying to learn his way in the world via her tutelage. Initially, he sacrifices friendships with people his own age in favor of spending time with his aunt; once he begins to find his own way in the world, however, that's when Nadia's world begins to unravel. Her life is mathematical precision, while his is quickly growing dependent on his blossoming loves. Clearly, this isn't her first stumble - as we learn as the story delves into some of the choices she's made in her life - but it very well may be her last.
In particular, Dalle handles the wealth of the material with great physical command. In the scope of the story, she stretches from her emotional high of the opening scenes (she's in command of a nighttime bonfire - a hostess for this gathering of friends - her early walks in the park are practically punctuated by the clip-clip-clip of her high heels on pavement) to her moments languishing in an obscure Austrian rehabilitation clinic (in contrast, she nearly blends into the serene environment, and her movements have grown directionless and unenergetic). It's a virtuoso performance deftly layered with emotion, and you're never quite sure if Nadia will rise to what family expects of her or if she'll surrender to her smoldering desires. As the picture's lead, Sultan clearly does everything he can to keep up with her, both in character and in craftsman; Dalle's years and experience give her an obvious advantage, but it's a wonder to watch her younger onscreen counterpart match her stride for stride. All in all, it's a seemingly effortless 110 minutes by our two leads, and that's no short accomplishment.
In fact, it's easy to see why DOMAIN was an "Official Selection" for the San Francisco International Film Festival and the Venice International Film Festival. It played to great acclaim in festivals in Moscow, Provincetown, and other cities. DOMAIN is the kind of story that academics, film scholars, serious actors, and other performance artists gravitate to. This is a portrayal of human souls with very little splash, pomp, or circumstance. It's an intimate portrait of moments captured on film; while there may be some production cleverness with light, colors, and shadows, the characters always remain front and center. Sometimes stark, sometimes reflective, yet always vivid.
The disc is exceptionally produced in terms of picture and sound. Colors are crisp - a key visual element in the purpose of maintaining the narrative as Nadia wanders between the emotions and influences of her life. Sound is equally demonstrative in storytelling here in that it's used with great restraint, almost sparingly; there are wholly `dreamlike' sequences captured (i.e. the nightclubs, the parks, etc.) which strive to give greater identity to these vignettes. Sadly, there are no special features - no commentary, no making-of, etc. - and I believe they could've been a strong edition to such a film. There are two `coming attractions' galleries highlighting other pictures available from the distributor, but that's it. Not off-putting but disappointing.
STRONGLY RECOMMENDED, though not for everyone's film tastes. DOMAIN is an exploration of characters - a mostly melancholy investigation of lives on different paths - not plot.
In the interests of fairness, I'm pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Strand Releasing provided me with a DVD screener for the expressed purposes of completing this review.