VILLA DES ROSES, based on the novel by Willem Elsschot, is a strange and claustrophobic examination of life in a confined space in Paris 1912-1913. Director Frank Van Passel has surrounded his production with excellent scenery, effects, camera work and a cast of gifted actors to tell this bizarre tale of Europe on the brink of The Great War.
Villa des Roses is a dilapidated mansion in Paris that serves as a hotel for an astonishingly seedy group of people. The hotel is 'managed' by a British man and wife Olive (Harriet Walter) and Hugh (Timothy West) who barely eek out a living from their irregular tenants. The one person apparently most in the know is Ella (Shirley Henderson) who is the Cook General and has access to all of the nooks and crannies via a spying system of tubes: she knows all the secrets of all of those housed in the Villa. It is an odd asylum for the British and for varied oddball, lost souls and disillusioned, loony guests in the midst of a rundown Paris.
Enter Louise Créteur (Julie Delphy), recently widowed by the Titanic sinking, who has left her young son behind to seek work in Paris. She gains employment at the Villa des Roses as the Chamber Maid, under strict instruction by Olive to not fraternize with the guests. But one of the tenants, Richard Grünewald (Shaun Dingwall) is a lady's man and soon the two have started a love affair that leads to the tragic end of the story. Richard loathes children, is not at all happy that Louise has a son (though she vows to give up everything for her love for Richard), and when Louise becomes pregnant, Richard cools and encourages an abortion. Louise complies out of blind love only to return to the Villa to find that Richard must leave for Germany (when actually he is following the latest American guest in her transfer to a better hotel). Louise's only confidant and friend is Ella and together they survive. Louise decides to go to Germany to 'find Richard' and on her way to the train sees Richard with his American paramour. Richard is called to military service at the same time Louise is boarding the train, a moment that proves to be the outbreak of WW I. How the story ends is tender and sad and best left as a surprise to the viewer.
Van Passel seems more interested in atmosphere of this magically strange hotel than he is in fleshing out his storyline. Oh, each of the characters is vastly interesting, but there is no background history on any of them that let us know why they had fallen into the sad mess of the Villa. But the performances by Julie Delphy, Shirley Henderson, and Shaun Dingwall are so fine that they maintain our attention and empathy. The strong supporting cast does as much as it can with the relatively little character development given them. The entire film is photographed in sepia tones that add enormously to the feeling of France on the brink of downfall.
This is a long film, highly dependent on visual imagery to keep it flowing, but a film with many messages about the world at the brink of war. Recommended. Grady Harp, September 05