Visual, emotional and conceptual romanticizing dominate “Le gout des merveilles,” a film by the French director Eric Besnard, whose English title is “The Sense of Wonder.” Its seemingly exceptional love story is set amid spectacular scenery in southern France, bounded from afar by the Alps and shot as though it were decoration for a tourism campaign. From this point of view, the movie works: After watching it, I now have a hankering to visit the area in which it was filmed. Another reason to visit derives from the scrumptious-looking pastry known as merveilles that the female lead, Louise (Virginie Efira), bakes and sells in the local market. In fact, a more accurate rendering of the French title would be “The Taste of Wonders.”
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Louise, a widow of delicate appearance and the mother of an adolescent son and a younger daughter, is trying to keep her late husband’s legacy intact by preserving the fruit orchards that have been in his family’s possession for generations, despite the farm’s heavy debts. Her banker maintains that she doesn’t stand a chance, and should sell. A bachelor neighbor, Paul (Laurent Bateau), who is obviously in love with Louise, offers to buy part of her land, but that would entail uprooting majesticancient trees.
Louise accepts all her troubles with admirable equanimity, the shadow of a smile always flitting across her face. That’s her response, too, when, one day, while returning home from the village, she hits a young man who suddenly darts across the road. He is only very slightly injured and tries to hurry away. But undeterred by his peculiar behavior, she persuades him to go home with her so she can tend to him.
So begins the bond that develops between the young man, Pierre (Benjamin Lavernhe), and Louise. Though his condition won’t be mentioned until later in the film, you don’t have to be a physician to spot immediately that it’s Asperger’s syndrome. Those who suffer from this disorder on the autism spectrum find it difficult to forge social ties and are thus often in a state of existential loneliness. Though the director does not ignore these hardships, he prefers to avoid them. Pierre, who lives in the storeroom of the local bookstore under the aegis of its goodhearted owner, is depicted as a gentle soul who is drawn to Louise and her family, who indeed accept him warmly without questioning his behavior.
He also responds to Louise’s generosity with romantic gestures. For example, on the day after the accident he sends her 37 bouquets of roses for her 37th birthday. Louise accepts this gesture with her characteristic tranquility, without concern that Pierre’s near-obsessive entry into her life and that of her family might be problematic in any way.
A measure of patronizing
In other words, amid its almost prettified landscape, “The Sense of Wonder” depicts an encounter between two good souls, one of whom – Pierre – also has an amusing side to him. Each of them has the possibility to redeem the other, if only they were ready for this and the circumstances permitted. It’s not that an encounter of this sort is not possible, but I would take Besnard’s film more seriously if the portrayal of the developing relationship between Louise and Pierre were accompanied by a degree of complexity and even a disturbing element. Far from harming the story’s substance, that would accord it a broader human dimension.
The depiction in films of people with developmental disorders as possessing lofty qualities might be taken as a tendentious effort to ease their acceptance by society. But there’s also a measure of patronizing involved, which is also present in Besnard’s picture. Pierre’s depiction leaves us impressed with his intellectual capacities and his practical capabilities – for example, he knows the location of every book in the storeroom and he saves Louise’s orchards from a threatening frost. We want to hug him, even if his character is not vitiated by excessive sweetness.
Despite the charm that Louise and Pierre exude – enhanced by the skill of the actors who play them – there is something altogether too smooth about the movie, even a bit ingratiating and predictable, despite the seeming oddness of the relations that are formed between the two leads. In fact, the picture would work better emotionally, conceptually and as a romantic comedy, if that oddness were more grounded, instead of constantly being poised on the brink of romantic fantasy.
Aware of this, the director introduces a totally superfluous subplot. It emerges that Pierre, who is also a computer wizard, was in the past mixed up in a hacking episode, was institutionalized and escaped, and is still being sought by his physician (Hiam Abbass in a thankless role) who wants to send him back to the institution. The danger lurking for out-of-the-ordinary members of our society is a familiar theme in films dealing with such characters. Here, this element is developed sloppily, feels constrained and generates no tension.
Besnard is also conscious of the fantasy-romance aspect of the story, and as such is careful to avoid the structure of a traditional romantic comedy in the developing ties between Louise and Pierre, even if the crises they endure bear a familiar genre stamp. Yet even that caution, though its intention is right, feels over-calculated. It doesn’t prevent the movie from sliding into realms of kitsch, even if it’s a kitsch that tries to disguise its tracks beneath a cinematic veneer of gentleness.