Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Page Turner (La Tourneuse de Page) - An Analysis

It's been a while since I regaled my readers with thoughts on cinema. I have not felt compelled to write about any film to date perhaps because none have left a subtle-yet-meaningful impression on me. I like fleshing out complexity and deciphering meanings that are not ranted about in every review.

Enter the French psychological thriller La Tourneuse de Page.

In a summary it is the story of Melanie, a young girl who, distracted by one of the judges during a piano audition, fails to enter the Conservatory and makes a revengeful pledge to get even with the one woman who, she believes, ruined her promising musical career. This one woman is Ariane, a rich and anxious bourgeoise living in a stately mansion with her self-righteous attorney husband and musically gifted son.

There are so many reasons I like this film and unfortunately to better highlight my insights, this post will need to contain spoilers. So please avoid reading if this will mar your experience.

The first thing I liked is the opening scenes, that is, the emphasis on butchery images as Melanie's father cuts carcasses and meat chunks and piano notes resound in the background. This sets the audience expectation for the film; since Melanie is a butcher's daughter then perhaps her revenge is likely to involve much blood letting or murder of some sort. After all, this plays on the cliche that butchers must have a somewhat callous disposition given the nature of their work and surely, Melanie must also possess those traits.
The greatest surprise then, in the film, is that this expectation is never fulfilled and Melanie's revenge strategy is much more subtle and crafty. Yet the meat symbolism remains powerful inasmuch as it conveys the hidden callousness inside Melanie and her utter objectification of the victim, Ariane.  Bluntly speaking, Ariane is the meat. The butcher symbolism inherent in knives and animal carcasses only serve to delineate Melanie's poor regard for her victim and her complete lack of empathy. A warning of things to come...

The second aspect of the film I found engrossing are the psychological details. Years later, as she sets about to avenge herself, Melanie enters into Ariane's service, first to mind her son and then later to help her turn musical pages and revive the musician's waning confidence.  The director uses costume remarkably well, offering us a glimpse of Melanie's deceitful nature even before she delivers her well planned blows. In all her encounters with Ariane and her husband, Melanie is meticulously dressed in conservative style, her hair tied back neatly, she speaks with a competent but soft humility and recalls Catherine Deneuve's ice cool beauty. Yet in the privacy of her room, we see the real Melanie prancing around bra less in a long t-shirt, her loose blonde hair cascading on her shoulders. During one scene, she reclines on a bed, chatting with nonchalance to her parents on the phone with an Anime magazine beside her. Again this might be cliche but in this case, the Anime symbolism not only reveals Melanie's modern and non-conservative outlook but it evokes strong, intense characters and an epop culture that has often been associated with lack of empathy. Who is the real Melanie?

Well the real Melanie is the young girl who years ago, even before she was called to complete her piano test, eyed the other girls in the waiting room with a calculated, cold stare. Yes even before her dramatic and life- shattering failure to enter into the Conservatory, Melanie's expression conveys her ruthlessness and callousness. I think that's another detail which works to raise the question, "would Melanie have turned out the way she did if she had at all succeeded?" She probably still would.

                                                                     The Kiss

There is another question I posed myself while I watched Melanie sexually and emotionally seduce Ariane with every intent of breaking her heart. After all, revenge, or the mechanisms of revenge requires that the avenger be familiar with what their victim would deem heart breaking or devastating. Inasmuch as Melanie chose to hurt Ariane through the heart route, I posed myself the question about whether Melanie might not have been herself vulnerable to female charm or any romantic charm.

And having thought about that, I wondered whether the very reason why the young Melanie was distracted by Ariane during her audition years ago, might not have been that she was already attracted to her.  During the audition, the young Melanie actually stares at Ariane and ceases to play. To which Ariane smiles and tells her, "why are you stopping my darling. Continue."
My darling...Perhaps Melanie already felt intimidated by the beautiful Ariane as a young girl. Perhaps her revengeful obsession, while partly fueled by thwarted ambitions, is no other than a repressed sexual obsession that will never see the light because she has chosen to hurt Ariane before Ariane hurts her.

And of course to add to Melanie's complexity is the very nature of her distraction. Indeed, during the audition, Melanie becomes distracted because Ariane was signing an autograph for a fan. This signing act, why would it be so fascinating to Melanie unless of course she was brutally envious of Ariane who represents the very peak of musical achievement inasmuch as she has fans who desire her autograph. Indeed, perhaps Melanie is not so much avenging herself for having failed to enter the Conservatory as a result of this distraction but more so because she wants to punish Ariane for having this power, this ability to sign autographs. This is supported by the fact that years later, as Ariane's page turner, Melanie witnesses another of those autograph signing acts after a concert and she seethes.
All these details work wonderfully to highlight Melanie's grandiose ideas of self-entitlement and her refusal to face the fact that perhaps it was her own inabilities that led to her being barred from the Conservatory.

One other aspect I enjoyed in this film is the sexual tension between Melanie and Ariane. The beautiful Catherine Frot was fifty years old when she stepped into that sleek one shoulder black gown for her character's Radio concert. I noted her perfectly toned shoulders and back, and her slender leg flirting through her thigh high slit. Her vulnerability and longing for intimacy had me voluntarily suspend any fears that Melanie was plotting something in the hope that the two women would actually consummate the underlying passion. I knew this could not turn out very well but I was prepared to watch this fascinating encounter. (I don't think Deborah Francois' perfect soft breasts helped either.)
I enjoyed the arguably very European casualty of Ariane's confidence to her musician friend. In a moment of soul baring, she sighs and states that her problem is "Melanie" and that "she has nothing, that everything belongs to her husband." Her friend understands perfectly. Our mind races fast...Ariane has had thoughts of leaving everything to be with her female lover.
I loved this understatement and the sexual possibilities it conveys. I thought it was well done.

To tie in with the film's deliberately misleading introductory scene, is the execution of Melanie's subtle and artful revenge which does not even involve knives, murder or blood shedding. Personally, I thought the ending was highly unlikely and qualified Ariane's husband as a loser on the basis that I am of the opinion that not many husbands would be verily threatened by their wife having an affair with another woman. But I think the film deliberately takes the conservative view. In addition, the plausibility of Ariane's husband's disgust upon discovering his wife's love affair hinges on what the couple have said earlier during a dinner, she, that she "always feels judged" by her attorney husband and he, that "he loves her dearly". Given those elements, the shame and betrayal implied in the ending seem more believable.

One final note is that early in the film, Ariane's husband makes reference to a hit and run car attack over his wife, one that left Ariane a nervous wreck, supposedly the reason why she is so reliant on her new page turner as a calming effect. The film does not further explore this attack but one is left to wonder whether Melanie has not for many years plotted to ruin Ariane's confidence and life and whether she may not have played a part in the hit and run attack. If this were true, it certainly adds to Melanie's complexity and only emphasises the lifelong, merciless effort she put to get even after all those years. The film does well in depicting its main character, in particular the character of potent nemesis, one that belongs only too well in an Anime story...

Overall I enjoyed the Page Turner and found it a refreshing film with interesting surprises and much psychological depth.

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