By now, the sublime Isabelle Huppert has created an indelible image as the reigning transgressive ice queen of art cinema, and My Little Princess gives the French actress a role that fits that picture like a glove: that of Hanna Giorgiu, an aspiring artist in mid-seventies Paris who achieves a succès de scandale with artistic, if borderline sexual, photographs of her teenage daughter Violetta (Anamaria Vartolomei). The plot may ring some bells and, indeed, My Little Princess (in English in the original) is openly inspired by director and co-writer Eva Ionesco's own experiences as the underage model for her mother Irina's risque shoots in mid-seventies Paris. And while it's clear that the film makes no attempt to whitewash anything or assign blame, it's obvious that casting Ms. Huppert as the mother opens the door to an exploration of the limits and needs of motherhood, since she is always able to find the nugget of humanity at the heart of an apparently heartless woman.

     The actress makes Hanna a volatile, fiery diva looking for love in all the wrong places, the child of a rural, repressed Romanian society who wants to assert her femininity and be taken seriously as an artist. But she is genuinely fond of her daughter, and her own ambitions blind her to the fact that using Violetta as a model may not be a good decision for either of them. Ms. Vartolomei as Violetta more than holds her own up against Ms. Huppert, and together they create a believable, push and pull rapport between mother and daughter where you find yourself asking, at some point, who in fact is the mother and who is the daughter, who is mature and who is immature. While Ms. Ionesco focuses on this relationship, in the fanciful world of make-believe they both share, all is well; but the film needs to balance it with the real world outside their bubble, to build a narrative (and a cautionary one) from such a story.

     And there is where My Little Princess fails to hold up, because the film loses its ominous, sinister charm, the characters stop being utterly believable and begin behaving in that irrational way of the overwrought family drama; the transformation is so abrupt and the change of mood so sudden that all becomes just another movie. It's a shame, since both the commitment of the actresses and the ever-so-slightly off-key recreation of that special bond between mother and daughter suggest the kernel of a provocative, insightful melodrama.

Isabelle Huppert, Anamaria Vartolomei, Georgetta Leahu, Denis Lavant, Jethro Cave; Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Pascal Bongard.

Director, Eva Ionesco; screenplay, Ms. Ionesco, Marc Cholodenko, Philippe le Guay; cinematography, Jeanne Lapoirie (colour, widescreen); music, Bertrand Burgalat; designer, François-Renaud Labarthe; costumes, Catherine Baba; editor, Laurence Briaud; production, Les Productions Bagheera, France 2 Cinéma, Love Streams Agnès B. Productions, France, 2011, 107 minutes.

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon, June 22nd 2012. 


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