The Impressionistic, Fantastical Cinematic Self-Portrait, Tedesci’s “Camel”
by Erica Abeel
It takes chutzpah to ask viewers to empathize with a heroine who suffers from an excess of money. Yet in her enthralling first feature, director Valeria Bruni Tedeschi (who also plays the poor little rich girl) does just that, making us root for thirtysomething Federica, a guilt-ridden heiress who drives her silver Porsche to church to confess her sin of obscene wealth. Bruni Tedeschi pulls off this sleight of hand through her sure command of an impressionistic style flecked with oddball humor, a seamless weave of reality and fantasy — including animated sequences, and flashbacks from childhood, both imagined and factual. In Federica, Bruni Tedeschi has created an indelible persona — clownish and vulnerable, and somewhat reminiscent of Giulietta Masina — though more physically luscious. As well, on some unvoiced level, the heroine’s malaise over her bucks taps into the viewer’s sentiment that the guilt might be justified.
Well-known in Europe as an actress, Bruni Tedeschi joins a company of gifted French female directors that includes Palme d’Or winner Agnes Jaoui, Anne Fontaine, Julie Lopes Curval, and Julie Bertucelli. Though I’m on shaky ground in saying this, she shares with them a distinctively feminine sensibility: a gaze trained on male petulance and entitlement; a gentle style lacking in bombast; a broody tenderness toward the characters and recognition of human fragility. However, Bruni Tedeschi, who collaborated on the screenplay with stated mentor Noemie Lvovsky, adds a new wrinkle: the film is a self-portrait, a kind of cinematic memoir reportedly based on her own family, who emigrated to France in the seventies, to flee the rash of kidnappings in Italy (memorably recalled in the recent “I’m Not Scared.”) Boosting the autobiographical tone, Marysa Borini, the director’s real mother, plays Federica’s mom.
Rather than a straightforward memoir, the film is a collage of vignettes that color in, using pastel tones, the map of Federica’s life. In her cushy, but morally spiny world, she experiences wealth as an impediment to entering the earthly heaven that seems hers for the asking. She can’t quite commit to lefty boyfriend Pierre (Jean-Hughes Anglade), who wants a bigger appartment, marriage, and children in that order. When she accidentally runs into her former lover, the now married Philippe (Denis Podalydes), she drifts into a no-win dalliance. Younger sister Bianca (a blonde Chiara Mastroianni) hates her because Federica was father’s favorite (with good reason, it’s revealed.) Federica is also an aspiring playwright who can’t get produced — an arrogant director disses her manuscript with, “It’s depressing, I don’t do depressed.” Federica seems to find release only in a ballet class for middle-aged people, who prance around like so many Zelda Fitzgeralds. The heroine’s mini crises are compounded by the final illness of her father, which brings home playboy son Aurelio (Lambert Wilson), and unites the family in semi-reconciliation.
And semi is the operative word: in the director’s signature manner, nothing is wholly one way or another; purely sad or purely funny; loved or hated, resolved, understood, completed. Anyone craving closure will hate the slippery slopes of this film, The opener of Federica in the confessional sets the tone. After much throat-clearing and awkward smiles, she confesses she doesn’t know how to confess — and is hers a “sin” or a “condition?” When she finally gets out, “I’m rich, I’ve got an enormous pile,” the priest blurts “how much?” before catching himself, and citing Matthew 19:24: “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” Cut to an animated sequence of Federica trying to thread a camel through a needle. Throughout the film, she virtually stalks this priest, who’s otherwise engaged with baptisms and the like, and who finally protests, “I’m not a psychoanalyst.” Is Federica funny, pitiable, ridiculous — or all three.
Bruni Tedeschi seems most at ease sliding on the greased hump of ambivalence. Federica joins Pierre, whose mother cleaned houses, in belting out the “Internationale” while seated in her Porsche near the Opera. In the film’s comic peak, Federica meets with a lawyer to discuss the disbursement of her fortune. When she objects that she has the right not to want her inheritance, the camera cuts, hilariously, to the lawyer’s level expression that nonetheless conveys deep horror — and, more than any film in recent memory, the chasm between the classes. “Buy clothes,” the lawyer counsels, deadpan. “Women love to shop.”
Ambivalence takes on new dimensions in Federica’s improvised-feeling scenes with her ex Philippe. They perfectly convey the heat of no-stakes sex. After telling him he “emptied” her life, then filled it with sadness, she suggests they go to a hotel (ah, the French.) The couple’s exchanges lay bare, however, Federica’s root problem: a predilection for idolizing male authority figures, starting with God and her dad; and also, it turns out, Philippe, who yells he’s just “a normal man full of shit.”
In this memoir as waking dream, Bruni Tedeschi has assembled a cast who seems so consonant with her screen personality, they might be sprung from her own head. As the shrink-addicted Bianca, Mastroianni does crazy with unexpected brio. As Pierre, the riveting Jean-Hughes Anglade reaches new heights as a tinderbox of rage ready to flame at the least provocation. Especially magical are the young sisters in flashback, gallivanting around a gilded mansion on pretend horses and conjuring the future. But best is Bruni Tedeschi’s Federica, a consummate flake who can’t put a foot right, staining her mother’s settee with menstrual blood, smiling in toothy apology for existing — yet with her mezzo voice and a feminine allure rarely scene in studio films, utterly seductive. This captivating memoir can only make you hope that future chapters are forthcoming.