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French Cinema, Melodrama

The Page Turner (La tourneuse de pages, France 2006)

Deborah François and Catherine Frot in The Page Turner

Déborah François and Catherine Frot in The Page Turner

The new film from French auteur director Denis Decourt is about to be released, so it seems a good moment to publish some education notes dealing with study of his previous film, La tourneuse de pages (The Page Turner). These notes were first published in 2007 as part of a Narrative Study for 17 year-old Film and Media students in the UK. (There are similar notes on films such as Tsotsi and Hero elsewhere on this site.)

These notes assume that students have already seen the film, so they include Spoilers.

Introduction

The Page Turner is very much a French film, dealing with aspects of middle-class French provincial culture. The characters and the location are not really found in the same way anywhere else (although the director did add an element of what he considered to be ‘Britishness’ – did you spot any British references?). Part of the ‘Frenchness’ of the story is to do with ‘tone’ and the attitudes towards high culture (e.g. classical music). The treatment of the story is also associated with ideas about French cinema. The pace is slow and deliberate and the style is cool and detached. To fully appreciate the film, you need almost to ‘turn off’ your senses attuned to Hollywood and then retune to something rather different (even though the basic narrative ideas and conventions are similar).

Plot outline

Mélanie is a 10 year-old girl from a small town who as a child learns to play the piano and has an ambition to become a professional pianist. When she auditions for a conservatoire place, she is distracted by the inconsiderate behaviour of one of the judging panel, professional pianist Ariane. Mélanie fails the audition.

Several years later, Mélanie gets an internship with a legal practice in Paris and when one of the partners needs someone to look after his son when he is away on business, she volunteers. The partner turns out to be Ariane’s husband. The couple live in a large country house outside Paris and Ariane is recovering from a serious accdent and trying to piece together her concert career. The son is learning to play the piano under his mother’s guidance. Mélanie gradually begins to exert her influence over mother and son. Ariane does not know she once failed Mélanie and is so impressed that she asks her to become her tourneuse – at home and for a performance for a radio producer. Ariane becomes professionally and emotionally dependent on Mélanie – unwittingly offering her the perfect opportunity to take revenge.

French provincial life: Background

France is quite similar to the UK in some ways, but there are subtle and not-so-subtle differences. First, France is a much bigger country, so distances are greater and small communities are more isolated. France still has a significant agricultural sector and a much stronger sense of a rural community than in the UK. Secondly, Paris dominates French social life to an even greater extent than London in the UK. Small towns and villages are conservative and the ‘25 miles from Paris’ location of the ‘big house’ in this film means something rather different to what ‘25 miles from London’ might mean in the UK.

The lawyer’s family in the film might be described as ‘middle-class’ or ‘upper middle-class’. It is a very large house and husband and wife both have jobs which are high in cultural status. The French education system focuses on ‘élites’ in special schools like the British system, but possibly with even greater emphasis. The ten year-old butcher’s daughter auditioning for a music school of some kind could potentially move out of her class through a specialised education. Because she fails to do so, she is faced with ‘serving’ the middle-class in some way – unless she is prepared to move to the city.

Hitchcock, Chabrol and the psychological thriller

Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) was one of the greatest showmen in cinema history as well as one of the most skilled directors. In over sixty films and numerous television programmes he established a rapport with audiences and a reputation for certain kinds of films, especially thrillers in which he would ‘play’ with the audience’s identification with characters – often inviting us to identify with both villain and victim or, perhaps, confusing us with characters who might be ‘good’ and/or ‘bad’. Much has been made of Hitchcock’s Catholicism and the power of guilt and moral uncertainty to unsettle characters. This aspect of his work and his ability to make highly entertaining films which also ask serious questions have attracted plenty of disciples, not least amongst the young filmmakers in France in the late 1950s and in Hollywood in the early 1960s who became New Wave directors. One of these in particular, Claude Chabrol, has been associated with the psychological thriller.

Chabrol has been making films for nearly fifty years at the rate of more than one film per year. Although he has made films in several genres, by far the majority are crime films of some kind. The setting for many Chabrol films is bourgeois (middle class) provincial life with some kind of social or moral issue underpinning a particular criminal act. Unlike many of Hitchcock’s entertainments with their carefully orchestrated chase sequences and sometimes shocking moments of violence, Chabrol’s films are more about manners and subtle actions (although there is often one or more violent actions).

Revenge and the stranger

The Page Turner draws on the Hitchcockian/Chabrolian idea of the psychological thriller and on a familiar narrative premise – the arrival in a specific family or small community of a stranger. The stranger is not recognised but is in fact intent on revenge for some action previously undertaken by the family/community. There are many variations on this premise. The stranger could be the child of the wronged person. They could be physically altered in appearance so that they are not recognised. They could be a ghost . . .

In each of these cases, the director has the chance to offer or withhold information for the audience or for the members of the family. As the audience we are both intrigued and fearful about what will happen as our understanding (our ‘story knowledge’ is manipulated by the director). The Page Turner was written and directed by Denis Dercourt. Dercourt was originally a highly-rated music teacher in the world of chamber music – a professional world full of tension and possibly brittle egos. He wrote the script during a period working in Japan where the revenge tragedy is a very important element of generic narratives in traditional theatre as well as cinema.

Examples of ‘stranger’ narratives

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) is a Hitchcock film set in 1941 (just before the US entered the Second World War in a time of seeming safety in California). A family get news that ‘Uncle Charlie’ (the mother’s brother) is coming to visit them after many years when they haven’t seen him. The eldest daughter is delighted that he is coming since she is ‘young Charley’ and she has always believed she has a special affinity with her uncle. But in the opening scenes of the film, the audience is shown that Uncle Charlie is a shady character who is being pursued by two men and who has travelled incognito to California. We fear that he is going to bring danger into the family or that he will corrupt young Charley.

La ceremonie (1995) is a Chabrol film, based on a novel by Ruth Rendell. A bourgeois family needs a new maid/housekeeper and a young woman answers their advertisement. She is given the job, but although she proves to be very efficient, there is something odd about her. Her behaviour becomes disturbing for the family when she links up with the local postal clerk in the village, another single woman who is mistrusted by the family. Gradually the situation deteriorates and the narrative has a rather shocking denouement.

Merci pour le chocolat (2000) is another Chabrol film that concerns a complex set of family relationships. At the beginning of the story (set in the French-speaking part of Switzerland) a well-known concert pianist re-marries his first wife after the death of his second wife (who was the mother of his son). A young woman, who is a music student, discovers that at the time of her birth there was some confusion at the clinic with babies being wrongly identified and that she may be the pianist’s daughter. She visits the pianist and begins to take music lessons. As the plot develops, she and the pianist’s son begin to suspect that the stepmother (whose own family owns a chocolate company) may be adulterating the chocolate she offers the family each evening.

Narrative Structure

The Page Turner has a very simple structure. The opening sets up the ‘inciting incident’ and then the events which detail the revenge all take place over a few weeks, several years later. The distinction between Act Two and Act Three is less clear cut, but there is a climactic moment, even if the resolution of the film is relatively open.

Questions of cinematography, mise en scène, music etc.

The Page Turner is in some ways a very ‘slight’ narrative in terms of action. Therefore it is important that whatever we see and hear conforms to a particular mood or tone that enables us to ‘feel’ the tension. Music is the central unifying factor in the narrative. Dercourt wanted to be sure the music worked and so despite his own high skills, he commissioned a complete score for the film from Jérôme Lemonnier as well as carefully choosing the pieces to be played in the concerts. To complement the music the cinematography and editing need to be ‘cool’ and fluid. The country house is presented in terms of understated wealth and elegance. As some critics have pointed out, the atmosphere of bourgeois provincial French life is one of politeness and formality (i.e. rather than ostentation). It might be useful to consider the contrast between how the house is presented in The Page Turner and how similar houses are presented in UK television dramas such as Inspector Morse or ‘heritage’ literary adaptations.

Although some of the action takes place in Paris, in the radio station, there is no attempt to make use of the bustle of the city. Apart from one long shot of the France Radio building everything is interior – like a chamber concert. The big house stands in open country, emphasising its isolation.

The final element in creating atmosphere and tone is the performance by the two leads, Catherine Frot and Déborah François. Frot is a very well-established actor France, although her films and television work are not particularly well-known in the UK. For Dercourt it was important that she could play the piano pieces used in the film and she does (but the sound of the playing is dubbed by a professional pianist). If we couldn’t see her fingers on the keys and feel confident that she was actually playing, the atmosphere would be lost. Déborah François is the sensational young rising star of Francophone cinema (she is actually Belgian/Walloon). She first appeared at Cannes in 2005 as the 16 year-old single mother in L’enfant, the Dardennes Brothers film that won the Palme d’Or. The Page Turner is only her second film and the difference between the two films is striking. In the first she has to act in a very naturalistic way and in The Page Turner, she must do the opposite, playing someone almost supernaturally composed. We may want to discuss how her physical presence effectively controls this film.

Narrative resolution

Above, we have suggested that the resolution is in some ways ‘open’. Mélanie leaves, walking down the deserted country road wearing her enigmatic smile. Has she resolved her own inner torment with her cruel actions? Or is she seriously deranged and a threat to society? The big question here is how have we reacted to her? Do we begin in sympathy and gradually realise what she is attempting to do? Are we still cheering her on at the end? And what of Ariane? She has seemingly lost her husband (and possibly her wealth), her son’s piano-playing future, her career and probably her self-respect. Does she deserve this? How do our attitudes towards her change over the course of the film?

Genre

We have set up the film in the context of the Hitchcockian/Chabrolian psychological thriller and the revenge drama. The third major repertoire that we have not so far mentioned is the melodrama. In introducing this possibility, we need to be careful because melodrama is a much misunderstood term with a range of possible meanings and some of them seemingly quite contradictory. Nevertheless, ‘melodrama’ is a term that has been consistently used by producers and critics over the whole history of the cinema. At the most basic level, ‘melodrama’ is derived from the Greek ‘melos’ = music plus ‘drama’. From this we get a dramatic narrative that uses music to express a commentary on action and the emotional states of the characters. More generally, especially in European cinema, melodrama has been seen to refer to narratives with a focus on a complex array of emotional relationships, often in a small social group. These emotions are then expressed through a range of stylistic devices, including music. This is also relevant for The Page Turner. There are three or four ‘small groups’ in the film: Mélanie’s family, the lawyer’s office and the two main groups, the lawyer’s family and Ariane’s work colleagues. We could argue that the ‘coldness’ and formality/politeness of the relationships and its expression via colour, lighting, camerawork, music etc. is what we might expect in a French bourgeois melodrama.

Reading a film case study: the opening to The Page Turner

Whatever the film, you are likely to want to analyse a short sequence in detail (around 5-7 minutes is about the right length). The chosen sequence will play a significant role in the narrative structure. It is likely to be:

  • the opening
  • a sequence which marks a shift in direction, a ‘turning point’ in the narrative, or
  • the closing sequence

The opening to The Page Turner is actually quite a long sequence which ends around 10’ 30’’ into the film with a fade to black. This is too long for a detailed analysis so we’ll split it into two. The credit sequence lasts 3’ 10” until the final credit, the film’s title. At this point, the girl leaves her darkened room and the camera focuses on a photograph of a concert pianist tacked to her wall.

The credit sequence performs several narrative functions. First it introduces the central character, Mélanie, aged 10. She is an intense little girl seemingly dedicated to practising for her audition. We first see her lying in bed, playing the keys in mime on top of her bedsheets. The room is dark and the camera circles around above her. The editing includes a number of overlapping dissolves which create a ghosting effect rather than a clean image. The soundtrack is particularly interesting in that it conveys a dreamy, echoing background sound with two distinctive piano parts mixed to the fore. There is a plaintive piano melody and also a separate single piano note which jars. The soundtrack ‘bridges’ a fade from the bedroom to the girl playing the piano at home during the day.

Once we see the girl in daylight, we begin to get a sense of setting. The room is quite small (we can see the kitchen in the background) and the sequence cuts between the girl playing and a butcher at work. Eventually we see the butcher’s shop both inside and outside. Finally when the girl comes to the family dining table, we realise that the father and mother both work in the butcher’s shop.

The short sequence around the dining table establishes that the parents are proud of the girl’s achievements in her playing. The father says that he wants her to enjoy her playing and tries to reassure her that even if she fails, they will stay pay for her lessons. She simply says ‘Non!’ This is a determined young woman. After the dining scene there is a cut back to the girl lying in bed and again we hear the piano part.

The credit sequence quickly establishes a character in a social context and introduces a familiar narrative question – will she pass the test and what might be the consequences either way? But we also learn a great deal more from the sequence. The music and the camerawork, as well as the editing and the young actor’s performance, all suggest that though she is determined, there is something disturbed or disturbing about the girl. Added to this is the editing together of the piano playing and butchery. The close ups of the father jointing a carcase and then preparing chops, of meat hanging in the cold store and displayed in the refrigerated cabinet seem excessive. They aren’t really necessary in order to tell us that he is a butcher. The wider shots of the shop do this quite effectively. Throughout the sequence the music and sound effects are unsettling (especially since there is no diegetic sound in the shop and even when we see the girl playing the piano, the sound is not diegetic (i.e. it is not her playing we hear, but music ‘outside the film’) but instead ‘disembodied’. The disturbing effect of the sound is matched by the camera which for much of the time is moving in circles round the girl, as if unable to be settled.

What do we make of this? If we are Chabrol fans, we immediately think of one of his most famous thrillers, Le boucher, in which a provincial butcher is a serial killer of young girls. But even if we don’t know this reference (from 1970), we have to consider the montage in the credits which juxtaposes cuts of meat and unsettling piano playing. Quickly we learn that the butcher himself seems a rather pleasant character and a caring father. Does our attention then focus on the girl?

In the second sequence we see Mélanie practising in the dark. When her father comes into the room she asks him if she can play the whole practice piece for him. He agrees, but we don’t hear this, instead the action cuts to the next morning when Mélanie attends the audition with her mother (who leaves her in the rehearsal room). The shots of Mélanie and her mother walking through the courtyard, up the stairs and into the suite of rooms is there to emphasise how busy it is – how many other young hopefuls are nervously waiting. Mélanie herself appears composed, but her mother stands rather awkwardly watching her go into the rehearsal room – does she feel out of place?

We see Ariane arriving in the courtyard below in a ‘point of view’ shot (the camera is clearly peering through a window). This could be Mélanie’s point of view, if she has looked out of the window. It can’t still be Mélanie’s view when we look down on Ariane coming up the stairs. This is more like the progress of a celebrity and its purpose is clear when we see Ariane accosted in the corridor by a fan seeking an autograph. Mélanie and her mother sit in a waiting room – almost like a doctor’s surgery and smile at each other. When Mélanie is called, she goes into the audition room, but her mother is stopped at the door by a look from the usher (almost as if she should know she is not allowed in – another suggestion of class/cultural difference). Mother must wait outside.

The audition itself is shot in quite a conventional way, but it offers a good example of how ‘film language’ works. The majority of shots are from a position slightly behind Mélanie, so that we see her in the foreground and the panel in the background. An occasional reverse shot ‘matches’ the panel’s view of her. Ariane is placed carefully in the centre of the five panellists, so that as we see Mélanie in close-up, side-on, Ariane (out of focus) fills the left side of the frame. The two are linked visually before the moment when the autograph hunter appears and Mélanie is so disturbed that she stops playing. Ariane then speaks to her quite condescendingly, “You needn’t have stopped. Carry on, dear”. With her concentration gone Mélanie plays on and makes several mistakes. When she stands up, a close-up of Mélanie’s face shows her determined look at the panel. The reverse then shows Ariane (and other panel members then looking down and away from Mélanie).

When Mélanie leaves the room, an odd shot shows the panel captured in a reflection in a large wall mirror with Ariane saying: “How many more?” ‘Mirror shots’ are common in expressionistic films (i.e. melodramas/thrillers) and they can have many different meanings. Often they can suggest that either a character has two sides to their personality or that they don’t necessarily see themselves as others see them. Here it could be a clue to Ariane’s later fragility or it could be suggesting her narcissism (being more interested in accepting fan worship than in focusing on the job at hand). Either way, it is an intriguing way to end the scene. One other point to make about the placing of the characters in the room. The panel sits in front of large windows with sunlight streaming through. This gives them a ‘halo’ of light around their heads and Mélanie must look towards them – towards a potential golden future which has just been thwarted. This may seem a trivial point, but would the scene have worked in the same way with the windows behind Mélanie?

When Mélanie emerges in the waiting room, tears are rolling down her cheeks, but she maintains her composure and doesn’t speak. When she collects her coat, she deliberately knocks down the piano lid when another girl is rehearsing – a harbinger of what is to come? Perhaps the odd thing here is that her mother says nothing (we assume she has seen the piano incident just now). Instead, the two turn and walk out together. The camera stays upstairs and shows them leaving the courtyard below in long shot. Perhaps daughter is like mother – pleasant most of the time, but capable of cold fury?

In the final part of this opening sequence, Mélanie is at home, putting away her Beethoven bust and locking up her piano – as if for good. A chapter has clearly ended – fade to black.

Essay or discussion questions on The Page Turner

1. The central figure in the film is Mélanie. How do you relate to her? Do you ever sympathise with her? Do you ever feel she is a complete villain? How does the filmmaker manipulate the audience in their attempts to identify with the character? How would you describe the performance of Déborah François as Mélanie?

2. Is this a linear narrative?

3. Does the film have familiar character roles? Mélanie may be the hero or the villain – what is her quest and are there ‘helpers’ and ‘blockers’?

4. What do you make of the ending of the film? Is Ariane completely destroyed? Will Mélanie do something similar in future? Is the ending satisfying or frustrating?

5. How does Mélanie ‘control’ Ariane? Why doesn’t Ariane see the danger that her friend in the trio clearly sees?

6. If the film is a ‘bourgeois melodrama’, it will make use of social class differences. How are these used in the film?

7. Music is central to the film. Select any sequence and discuss how the music aids the narrative development. A good sequence might be the first performance by the trio at the radio station when they play a Shostakovich piece.

8. In what ways does the director exploit the two main locations in the film – Ariane’s house in the country and the radio station – in terms of mise en scène?

9. Discuss why the film might be seen as a psychological thriller.

10. There are some scenes in the film suggesting that we are about to witness something from a horror film. Which scenes are they and why do they suggest horror?

11. In the final scenes, Mélanie gives Ariane’s son, Tristan, the small Beethoven bust that she had as a child. What meaning do you attach to this?

12. Film narratives are not necessarily understood or appreciated by all audiences in the same way. Discuss in your group who enjoyed the film and who didn’t (or look for negative reviews on the internet). What kinds of factors are important for those who don’t like the film?

References and Further Reading

David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson (1997, 5th edition) Film Art, London and New York: McGraw Hill

Gill Branston and Roy Stafford (2006, 4th ed) The Media Student’s Book, London: Routledge

Nick Lacey (1998) Image and Representation, London: Macmillan

Nick Lacey (2000) Narrative and Genre, London: Macmillan

Nick Lacey (2005) Introduction to Film, Basingstoke: Palgrave

Websites

http://cineuropa.org/ffocus.aspx?lang=en&treeID=1250 (useful background material on the film)

www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/cteq/01/13/ceremonie.html (review of Chabrol’s film)

www.filmref.com/directors/dirpages/chabrol.html (reviews of three Chabrol films)

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychological_thriller

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