On the heels of a highly derided 2015 competition line-up, the 2016 Cannes Film Festival Palme hopefuls have proven themselves to be remarkably strong, thus far. But, no edition of the competition slate would be truly filling without a decent serving of turkey, and Nicole Garcia’s disastrous Mal de pierres is so undercooked and free of nutrients that its audience is at risk of food poisoning, or maybe its titular kidney stones.
In post-World War II France, Gabrielle (Marion Cotillard), looking for love, is overcome with depression. Her family, eager to rid themselves of her, arrange her marriage to José, a Spanish bricklayer, hoping that he is the cure for her perceived insanity. “I won’t sleep with you,” she warns José (Alex Brendemühl) before agreeing to wed. Despite his attempts to prove himself a doting husband, Gabrielle is initially true to her word, though she soon softens, merely demanding the payment that he has been required to lavish on his prostitutes.
They are unhappily coupled until Gabrielle is diagnosed with a case of “mal de pierres” (en anglais: kidney stones), and is sent for treatment at a spa, where she must live apart from José as they wait for her cure. At this retreat, Gabrielle meets André (Louis Garrel) and falls head over heels in love with this moody, mysterious, injured war veteran/pianist from Lyon. Before long, he requires hospitalization, and while her husband (who coincidentally happens to be visiting her) watches, with her arms flailing as she runs, she chases the ambulance that carries her new lover away. The next day, he appears as she is eating her lunch, telling her, “I came back for you.” Too soon for these lovers, Gabrielle is cured of her malady, and is told she must return to her husband. Pregnant with his child, Gabrielle promises André that as soon as he gives her the word, she will leave her husband to abscond with him.
After writing André dozens of unanswered letters, Gabrielle wistfully concludes that either something has happened to him or she has been forgotten, and she resolves to try to live happily with her husband. Over a decade later, en route to a recital in which her son is set to play in Lyon, Gabrielle crosses André’s home address, and her efforts to be content are thrown into chaos.
Until this point, Mal de pierres has at least simply been tragically dull, clichéd, and unmoving. But once it begins to explore and challenge Gabrielle’s memories of André, what little it has accomplished is instantly undone. With plotting that would make Christian Petzold’s Phoenix seem plausible, and ripe with contrivances that would make Nicholas Sparks blush, Mal de pierres reverses its few hard-earned emotional victories as it takes the plunge into absolute kitsch. It’s as though this film has forgotten that it exists to be a hallmark of bad melodrama, and it pursues a narrative fraught with metaphysical conceits so astoundingly preposterous that it must be seen to be believed.
Marion Cotillard, after recently delivering major performances in Rust and Bone, The Immigrant, and Two Days, One Night, is not even able to elevate her mediocre material in her fifth consecutive Cannes competition outing. Usually a reliably inspired and emotionally intuitive actress, Marion is surprisingly standard at best, as she struggles to navigate Gabrielle’s arc in the midst of Mal de pierres’ convoluted story. Her chemistry with Louis Garrel and Alex Brendemühl is flat, denying the audience the opportunity to at least care about them as characters, in spite of the rest of the mess at hand. Though most are, not all of Nicole Garcia’s directorial flourishes are entirely misguided. In one of the rare affecting moments of Mal de pierres, Gabrielle and André are shown making love, and it is difficult not to appreciate the soft, tender lensing of these lovers.
Great films have been made from mediocre material, but everyone involved in Mal de pierres appears to lack the passion and drive to go all the way and help this film transcend its weaknesses. Marion Cotillard has famously been snubbed for the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Actress honours for the last four consecutive years. If this was never going to be a good film, maybe its existence could have been justified (on a perversely shallow level) by managing to snag its lead actress that perennially elusive Best Actress prize? This year, at least with Mal de pierres, it appears as though the path to this win is unlikely. Sorry, Marion: maybe next year?