Cannes 2023 review: Bonnard, Pierre et Marthe (Martin Provost)

“The blend of emotions assists in setting the standard for the film, driven by the perfect calibration of tone and storytelling.”

Whether intentional or not, all art is fuelled by some kind of desire. Martin Provost is clearly in agreement, as evidenced by Bonnard, Pierre et Marthe, in which the esteemed and often quite daring filmmaker tells the story of the titular characters as they navigate their life together, enduring the trials and tribulations that befall any longtime partnership. Set over roughly half a century, and following Pierre Bonnard’s first chance encounter with Marthe de Méligny, from their days as rambunctious youths working their way through the different social conventions that governed Paris at the turn of the 20th century, to their older years, showcasing their deep commitment to one another and loyalty to the relationship that they built over the years. A relationship which resulted in nearly one-third of Pierre’s paintings (which the film estimates to be at around two thousand unique works) showcasing Marthe as a subject, even after her death. Beautiful and poetic, but also deeply compelling and wonderfully provocative in tasteful and earnest ways, Bonnard, Pierre et Marthe is an extraordinary and well-crafted drama that once again provides clear evidence of Provost’s masterful control of his craft, as well as the virtue of a simple but evocative story, which forms the foundation for this spirited examination of desire and artistry, two deeply intertwined concepts.

Bonnard, Pierre and Marthe is not the first work to provide an in-depth account of both the artistic and personal life of a world-renowned artist. It joins a steadily growing canon of thoughtful pieces that focus on a specific creative individual, providing a fascinating depiction of their lives, in terms of both the artistic approach that resulted in their iconic works and the sources of their inspiration. These are shown to be far-ranging and often quite unexpected, which is the impetus behind many incredible works of art. Provost chooses to filter the story of Pierre Bonnard through the perspective of his relationship with his wife, which is a good decision considering that any cursory analysis of his work will demonstrate how heavily inspired he was by Marthe, who was unquestionably his muse and the person who helped guide many of his finest works. The film examines how Bonnard drew inspiration from his everyday life, which is shown through the oscillation between his and Marthe’s daily routines, and his time spent committing these moments to the canvas. Provost approaches this film as if he was peering into the lives of this couple, focusing on their interactions with each other, as well as other characters, and showing how even the most inconsequential moments can prove to be inspirational.

Yet the true art that this film is so intent on exploring is that of falling in love, which is shown to be far from a linear process. Throughout Bonnard, Pierre et Marthe, Provost is painting a portrait of two people falling in love, overcoming social and cultural boundaries, as well as an initial conflict of personality and lack of common ground. Our initial glimpse of these characters in their first encounter is shown in media res as Marthe reluctantly models for Pierre, her impatience conflicting with his almost pompous stubbornness. Yet this ignites the spark that drives the entire narrative, and credit must be given not only to the director, but also to the film’s leads, Vincent Macaigne (who sets aside his endearing urbane scruffiness to transform into the strait-laced Bonnard) and Cécile de France, both of whom deliver spirited and complex performances that define the film and add the necessary layers of authenticity. The challenge that accompanied these roles was that we don’t know much about Bonnard outside of the art he produced, and the film instead had to offer its well-curated speculations about what day-to-day life would entail for these characters. As a result, we find that Macaigne and de France actively seek out layers within the characters, which adds an abundance of life and soul to these individuals.

Much like his two leads, Provost’s main objective for Bonnard, Pierre et Marthe was to challenge traditions, both artistic and cultural, in a subtle but meaningful way. He achieves this by constantly avoiding conventions associated with biographical dramas, which are often fascinating but tend to veer too close to a familiar formula, which can be tedious, especially when following these characters over the course of nearly half a century. The story chooses a few key moments in the life of the titular characters and infuses them into the narrative, combining them with Pierre’s process of turning his experiences, memories and desires into art, which sheds light not only onto his artistic process, but his entire life. The technical and creative aspects of the filmmaking that accompany the story are similarly strong – the melancholy score by Michael Galasso is achingly beautiful and profound, while the cinematography by Guillaume Schiffman captures the splendour of the period, as well as the intimate moments that exist between these characters. Provost’s direction is precise and always meaningful, and he doesn’t waste an opportunity to emphasize the beauty of this story, whether in the small details or broad strokes.

Bonnard, Pierre et Marthe is a film about a partnership, both in terms of artistic expression and romance. Provost’s vision for this material is clear and concise, and he weaves together an engaging and beautifully poetic story that may initially appear to be a purely biographical account of its subjects, but soon abandons conventions and heads in its own direction, which is where many of the most fascinating decisions are made, both narratively and visually. The most appropriate description of this film would be that it is mainly a gentle meditation on life and love, focusing on an extremely gifted artist and the person who inspired the majority of his work, whether directly or purely by influencing his worldview. There is a playfulness that pulsates throughout this film, which is as much about exploring the lives of Pierre and Marthe as it is about expressing their sincere, loving marriage, contrasting it with the changing social and cultural landscape during arguably one of the most tumultuous periods in history. The blend of emotions assists in setting the standard for the film, driven by the perfect calibration of tone and storytelling, which Provost easily conveys in every frame. It is a poignant and heartfelt exploration of not only the real-life subjects, but the love that defined their lives and careers, which should resonate with viewers as they traverse the striking and compelling world of this film.

(c) Image copyright: Carole Bethuel