Synopsis: October 1918. On returning to civilian life, young Doctor Giorgio Volli goes searching for the group of children he cared for before the war. His quest quickly becomes a game of hide-and-seek with death played in an old orphanage against a backdrop of baying wolf packs roaring the surrounding marshes. A child’s nightmare in which love, like Catherine, a fragile young girl, can be embraced only by embracing madness. Starring French pop megastar Mylène Farmer.
eyelights: its unusual quirks. its visual style. its score.
eyesores: its ungodly length. its thin plot.
French filmmaker Laurent Boutonnat got his start at the tender age of 17 with the release of ‘La Ballade de la féconductrice’ in 1980. Sadly, the fantasy film wasn’t especially well-received and Boutonnat refocused his energies on music, composing singles and trying to get them produced.
Fortunately, three years later, he met Mylène Farmer during a casting call for his song “Maman à tort”. With her on board, the single was a hit and an incredibly successful music partnership was born. Together, Boutonnat and Farmer blew the roof off of the French pop and club scene, ruling the charts.
Boutonnat was more than just a songwriter, however: a perfectionist, he also produced Farmer’s albums and directed the videos to all of her early singles. Shot on film, he frequently transformed these into mini-epic, action-adventure period pieces that sometimes exceeded the 10-minute mark.
It only seemed natural, then, that they would make a motion picture together. Thus, in 1992, they embarked on the making of ‘Giorgino’, an eerie fantastical period drama, which Boutonnat not only directed, but co-wrote, produced and even composed the score to. Farmer would be one of its stars.
The picture, which was made on a moderate budget, was shot in 1993 and was eventually released in 1994. Again, Boutonnat found success escaping his grasp: the picture not only drew very few people to the cinema, it was also lambasted by critics. Boutonnat bought the rights to it and buried it.
By the time I originally heard about ‘Giorgino’ it was long gone. I was a moderate fan of Mylène Farmer (like Madonna, I usually like every other album), but I adored her 1992 single “Que mon coeur lâche” and then gobbled up her subsequent album, ‘Anamorphosée’, which came out in 1995.
I was stunned to find out that she had been in a movie, but it wasn’t enough for me to want to see it. I had no idea at the time that it was directed by the same man who put together the epic clips for “Libertine”, “Pourvu qu’elles soient douces” and “Désenchantée”. If only I’d known.
So it was only many years later, while riding the crest of a wave in my on/off love affair with Mylène Farmer, that I made the connections and realized how much potential a Boutonnat/Farmer picture might have. Luckily, in 2007 ‘Giorgino’ had been released on DVD in their native France.
It was belated, but I ordered a copy.
I knew nothing about it going in. The first thing that stunned me was that to find out the extent to which Boutonnat was involved in its making. The next thing that took me by surprise me was that the picture was shot in English, not in French, as I’d expected. Even Farmer spoke English in it.
‘Giorgino’ tells the story of Giorgio, a young soldier returning from the First World War, having been struck down by mustard gas. Ailing, he seeks the orphans he used to care for. Discovering that they’d been displaced due to the shelling, his journey leads him to the quiet town of Chanteloup.
There he discovers that all of the orphans have died under mysterious circumstances, with conflicting claims that they’d drowned or that roaming wolves had eaten them. There is even the allusion that their doctor may have poisoned them. Giorgio intends to find out the truth, however elusive it may be.
The isolated villagers, all of whom are women (except for the town priest), are not helping to shed any light on the mystery; there’s a definite air of madness floating about. Meanwhile, Giorgio becomes infatuated with Catherine, a childlike young woman (Farmer) ensconced at the heart of this tragedy.
‘Giorgio’ is a fairytale of sorts, but it’s a story that drags on endlessly over the course of nearly three hours. Filmed on a moderate budget, this is hardly due to an exercise in excess; its impression of interminability is because the picture is intended to be atmospheric. Unfortunately, few peaks sustain it.
There are also a few plot gaps that left me quizzical: Why doesn’t Giorgio ask the Doctor what he’s injecting him with? How could the Doctor escape and just wander about? What’s with the random marriage proposal? In what way did it make sense to bring Catherine to the asylum?
The picture looks good, is perfectly bleak (as intended), and the score that Boutonnat created certainly enhances the images and mood, but these elements don’t make up for the film’s sense of inertia. One might expect some degree wonderment, à la Tim Burton, but this never really translates to the screen.
Had the main players been more magnetic, perhaps this could have been overcome. Alas, Jeff Dahlgren comes off as a young Johnny Depp without the depth. And Mylène Farmer is wildly inconsistent, sometimes pulling off the perfect gaze, but then being unconvincing in more emotional moments.
The rest of the main cast is quite good, with Joss Ackland, Frances Barber and Louise Fletcher providing terrific support, but the bit parts are played by people way out of their league. It’s inconsistent enough that one gets the impression of watching a B-movie version of a David Lean epic.
Adding to this B-movie quality are such things as a Mylène Farmer’s voice either being overdubbed or recorded poorly – to such a degree that it didn’t seem to fit her and I couldn’t understand what she was saying half of the time (sadly, there were no English subtitles on the DVD to help out).
Then there are the sets (like the snowy pond) that don’t blend in with the locales, which are mostly the plains of Slovakia. Thankfully, most of the indoor sets look great and the picture benefits tremendously from the European locations, which are easily dressed up for a Post-War setting.
Interestingly, I can’t seem to rate this picture any lower, even though I actually had to take a short break midway to get through it; it’s a mostly competent picture and it has appealing qualities to it. But it just doesn’t thrill or engross in the way such an epic normally should; it’s too sluggish for that.
If anything, a three-hour picture has to be much more consistent for it to be appealing; with a stronger cast, it might have drawn in fans of period pieces but, as it stands, it couldn’t possibly satisfy them. Meanwhile, its length will naturally deter the casual cinemagoer; it’s far too demanding.
So it’s hardly surprising that ‘Giorgino’ wasn’t a success. That is was such a massive failure is probably more due to having been released in France, where expectations and standards were not in line with it. After its failure there, the picture simply had no chance elsewhere. It was a poor roll-out decision.
That Boutonnat’s ego didn’t allow him to let his flawed but perfectly adequate picture fly on its own afterwards also didn’t help. It’s the type of picture that would likely have found an audience on home video later on – especially with fans of fantasy and atmospheric cinema. It could have been a cult classic.
Instead, he gave ‘Giorgino’ the kiss of death. It’s a shame.
Date of viewing: July 11, 2015