Two years after Céline Sciamma’s luminous “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, the lush historical romance has spawned an intriguing legacy: Two of its stars are back on the Croisette, each with her own feature directorial debut. Noémie Merlant and breakout supporting star Luàna Bajrami have made a pair of films that would make a compelling double feature with their similar tones and countryside settings, along with awkward filmmaking tics to spare. But while Bajrami’s “The Hill Where Lionesses Roar” indicates a budding filmmaker eager to explore elements that don’t always pay off, Merlant’s “Mi Iubita, Mon Amour” suffers from the opposite issue: a filmmaker unwilling to grapple with the uncomfortable questions her story asks.
Neatly split into two sections — “Mi Iubita” (Romanian for “my beloved”), and “Mon Amour” (same sentiment, in French) — Merlant’s film seems to promise one love story told from two perspectives, but one of those characters (portrayed by Merlant herself) is frustratingly impenetrable. Still, the film is a two-hander from top to bottom: Merlant wrote it alongside her co-star and on-screen love interest Gimi-Nicole Covaci, and the film follows the pair (Merlant as reserved French tourist Jeanne, Covaci as the gentle Romani teenager unexpectedly thrown into her path) as they navigate an unlikely (and very uncomfortable) romance during a few misbegotten, sweaty summer days.
The film opens on a strong note, setting the audience inside a crowded car filled with bickering bachelorette party members on their way to the Romanian seaside to celebrate Jeanne’s impending nuptials. Merlant excels at mining the beats and rhythms of everyday conversation for maximum drama and believability. Those sequences feel honest and the product of a filmmaker compelled by a curiosity about human nature.
And yet “Mi Iubita, Mon Amour” exhibits little of that same grace or curiosity when it comes to Jeanne. “In one month, I’ll be a married woman,” Jeanne says to her pals, her face almost imperceptibly twisting into shock at the thought of it. It’s one of the few moments in which we’ll see Merlant — who also played repressed and reserved, with considerably greater impact, in “Portrait” — indicate what’s going on behind Jeanne’s blank face. Even in heightened moments, like when the girls’ car is stolen at an empty roadside stop, Merlant (both in front of and behind the camera) gives away little.
The car is stolen just as Jeanne and pals are meeting Nino (Covaci) and his family, who have also stopped for a roadside rest. (We soon learn the clan are Romani, though the characters often use the term “gypsy;” in some circles it’s a designation that is considered a slur.) Kind-hearted and gregarious, Nino and his family offer to take in the ladies while they figure out next steps. What looks like a narrative twist becomes an utter contrivance; it throws together two very different people in service to a story that feels less believable at every turn.
While Nino tells the bachelorette party he’s 21, there’s little doubt he’s considerably younger. Nino has a gentle charm, but it’s steeped in his soft, sweet youth. Of course, he’s still just a kid; who would need to be told that? Jeanne, as it turns out. Soon, the unlikely pair are hanging out at the family’s country home that’s still under construction — one of those “the setting is really a character!” things that works — and share an awkward first kiss. Why Jeanne would be interested in Nino is unclear, if only because Jeanne herself is so thinly drawn and so limply played by Merlant. Random chatter about the cost of marriage stands in for greater answers; we’re left to assume that Jeanne’s (maybe?) cold feet pushed her into an odd dalliance.
Or maybe he just represents a different kind of tourism for her. As they continue to circle each other, Nino lightly ribs Jeanne for being unable to “party” in Romania as she wanted to, waylaid by the car and all. She appears to be caught by the truth of the statement, but Merlant and Covaci’s script sidesteps that issue at almost every turn. Laws and social mores may be different in France, but Nino is designed to be at a disadvantage to the older French women, especially to Jeanne. The power dynamic is never in question; nor is it explored, beyond the script twisting Jeanne into someone who sparks to the idea of “teaching” Nino about sex.
It’s a thorny subject that raises many questions, and Merlant seems unwilling to engage with any of them. The film’s twinned title hints that this is meant to be a love story, and while some of the more uncomfortable bits would provide fertile ground for deeper discussion, by the film’s final act “Mi Iubita, Mon Amour” finds its two mismatched leads blubbering over the prospect of losing each other. What brought them together in the first place — for better or, mostly, worse — is never examined, and it all seems like a profoundly trite and cruel way for Jeanne to discover that she should not get married. Who are these people? Why should we care about them? Not only does this inauspicious debut struggles to answer those basic questions, it never finds a believable way to ask them.
“Mi Iubita, Mon Amour” premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.