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Based on his debut, The dancera decorative alumnus biopic of Folies Bergere e end of the century bohemian Loie Fuller, French director Stephanie di Giusto returns to the 19th century with Rosaliaanother feminism-inspired story about a sensual and offbeat woman ahead of her time.
However, the subject here is not a specific historical figure, but a composite of various people of the time who all have the same condition as the eponymous heroine: tendency to grow hair all over her body, or hirsutism, the condition which thus creates -called “bearded women”. Both a factual speculation about how a husband and a small town would react to someone like this in their midst (spoiler alert: not great, at least at first), and a thinly disguised parable about intolerance, Rosalia offers a very watchable and offbeat slice of period drama. The script gets a bit melodramatic and awkward in the last act, but thanks to the charismatic lead performances of Nadia Tereszkiewicz as Rosalie and Benoît Magimel as her husband, Abel, this is eminently exportable, except perhaps for the red states that they can’t cope with anything that reeks even faintly of resistance.
Love triumphs over a furry situation.
Place: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Launch: Nadia Tereszkiewicz, Benoit Magimel, Benjamin Biolay, Guillaume Gouix, Gustave Kevern, Anna Biolay, Eugene Marcuse, Juliette Armanet
Director: Stephanie di Giusto
Screenwriters: Stéphanie di Giusto, Sandrine le Coustumer, from a treatment by Sandrine le Coustumer, Alexandra Echkenazi
1 hour and 51 minutes
The time is 1870 and the place is a once rural part of northern France where local farmers now work in a factory producing something unspecified rather than in the fields. Abel (Magimel, The piano teacher) is a former soldier in his forties who suffers from old back wounds and is indebted to the owner of the local factory, Barcelin (Benjamin Biolay). He agrees to marry Rosalie (Tereszkiewicz, Forever Young) – who is pretty much over the hill on the marriage market in her twenties – because she comes with a dowry from her father, Paul (Gustave Kervern), which will help him settle some of debt ones. Also, he can help Abel in the bar he runs in town, which struggles to attract customers thanks to the promotion of temperance by the local clergy and by Barcelin, who doesn’t want its workers to shrink.
At first, Abel is quite pleased with his new bride, who, though a little shy, is still a beauty with her sleepy bedroom eyes and fresh milky complexion. He also happens to be handy with a needle and makes her clothes out of hers. (Madeline Fontaine’s costume designs are delightfully detailed throughout.) Their first night as a married couple, however, doesn’t go well when Abel discovers hair covering her chest and back. She managed to keep the hair growing on her face under control with her father’s help with a razor, but in a time before epilators and depilatory creams she’s learned to live with it quite well and hopes Abel can too. to do it. Unfortunately, she is initially rejected and the marriage remains unconsummated until later in the film.
However, Rosalie’s sunny demeanor and attractive presence attract customers, and one day she makes a bet with another customer to see who can grow a better beard. Abel is obviously grumpy and furious, but Rosalie argues that her beard might attract visitors, like a circus show. In fact, that’s exactly how it ends and before long, the locals become fascinated by Rosalie, who maintains a very feminine demeanor despite her lush strawberry-blonde mustache.
Of course, di Giusto and her writing collaborators Sandrine le Coustumer and Alexandra Echkenazi cannot let this happy situation continue if there is to be drama. So a series of interruptions and impediments to Rosalie and Abel’s happiness must be introduced. There is a plot by Barcelin to have her ostracized by the community (who are rather condescendingly depicted as spineless sheep who change their minds about Rosalie under the slightest pressure).
Later, our otherwise admirable heroine makes a very serious error of judgment – quite unusual for a petit bourgeois woman of her time – when she agrees to have a friend photographer take her half-naked photographs, which of course immediately start circulating in the community. Presumably, the movie wants us to applaud Rosalie’s hair-positive self-acceptance and courage to show herself as a sexual being on her terms, which is totally fine these days. But in the 1870s it is a practically suicidal decision and some viewers like myself may find themselves losing sympathy after the protagonist makes this very unwise move which jeopardizes everything she has worked for.
Rest assured that, despite all logic, things are looking good for Rosalie and Abel, like lovers in a cheerful romance novel. Indeed, for all the kerfuffle about social mores and self-acceptance, this is truly a love story aimed at female viewers and fellow travelers, complete with candlelit love scenes and all the pretty trappings of protection payment.