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The Page Turner – film review

 

Every crime has something of the dream about it. Crimes determined to take place engender all they need: victims, circumstances, pretexts, opportunities. Paul Valéry

The Page Turner – (La Tourneuse de Pages) – is a French film (2006) written and directed by Denis Dercourt.

This is a revenge and psychological thriller of the kind that has been made by Hollywood several times and it is instructional to note the ways that national film cultures differ in their approach to the subject.

Melanie Prouvost is a talented pianist and the ten-year-old daughter of a provincial butcher. When the film opens she is getting ready for her entrance examination at the Paris Conservatory. She is, naturally, a little nervous, but she is a wilful and focussed child and expected to pass the exam easily.

But Ariane Fouchécourt, a famous pianist and the president of the jury thoughtlessly and needlessly interrupts Melanie’s performance, so that the girl loses concentration and fails the examination. She leaves the room and the Conservatory obviously disturbed by what has happened to her.

Revenge, they say, is a dish best served cold. We next meet Melanie about ten years later. She has not touched a piano since her day at the Conservatory and is now living in Paris and, unrecognised by Ariane, is making herself indispensable in the household of the musician, where she is employed to take care of Ariane’s son, Tristan.

Melanie is an impassive girl but attractive and willing. As an audience we find her a little unnerving, suspecting that her choice of employer was no accident but having no real evidence to support these feelings.

Dercourt, the director, plays with the tension and claustrophobia of the two women, the boy, and the few additional characters who impinge on their lives.

Melanie slowly racks up her involvement with Ariane, extending their relationship into the musician’s professional as well as her domestic life. Their connection has increasingly sexual undertones.

Throughout the length of the film there is only one suddenly executed and shocking act of violence, which is not foreseen or premeditated by any of the players.

As a psychological thriller The Page Turner works on several levels. We have repression in abundance, the individual repression of Melanie, and the middle-class repressions of Ariane and her son, who are totally vulnerable to Melanie’s unconventional and malevolent expression of emotion.

The Hollywood version of this plot is almost always sensationalized, the central figure is portrayed as an undoubted psychopath and all leads inexorably to a terrible and bloody finale involving a butcher’s knife. Disaster is usually averted only by the introduction of a superior weapon to blow the Melanie figure away.

But the French version is different. Everything is enclosed in a veneer of Gallic civilization. Manners predominate. There are long silences. The smiles and acts of recognition between the main players are not always nor even necessarily hollow.

Ariane’s original offence was one of discourtesy and impoliteness. Melanie, as a ten-year-old does not have the experience to deal with this rationally. She has an emotional response and an overwhelming sense of shame. And she turns this in on herself, generating a disturbingly disproportionate response.

Both Catherine Frot (Ariane) and Deborah Francois (Melanie), are excellent. They manage to convey a sense of inner passion and chaos behind the masks of bourgeois control.

Dercourt, who is a professional musician as well as a film-maker, discovered while working on The Page Turner ‘how similar the mechanisms of suspense are to the techniques of writing music’.

In a sub-text the film underlines how the west, particularly via the administrations in Washington and London, are in the process of creating future terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq, as children of all ages watch their homes disappearing and their parents and siblings being maimed and killed for no apparent reason.

18 Responses to “The Page Turner – film review”

  1. james says:

    Hello, I read your review with some interest.

    I agree that the film had some good scenes, great performances, and that there was some palpable tension running through it, but I think you are being far too kind to it. I thought it disappointing.

    First or all, subtexts can be whatever strikes you at that particular moment. Normally they illuminate something that’s prescient to you rather than actually existing for the film makers. The last time I remember being really struck with what I thought was an obvious subtext was on taking my little boy to see The Incredibles and thinking that the villain – the spoilt brat boy, trying to whip up fear and hysteria among the public, so he could come to it’s rescue, and be the hero, was a comment on Boy George W and U.S domestic and foreign policy. Everyone thought I was nuts. Including me, looking back.

    But I digress; my point is that I think the main fault with the film was that there simply wasn’t anywhere near enough character development of the Melanie Prouvost character. She had no emotional arc, she ended the same way she started; neither learning anything about the nature of revenge, herself, the wider world, why you have to let go etc. what was left was a purely plot-driven film where the only interesting tension was what turn the plot would take. I knew what was coming right from the start; and sadly, disappointingly, nothing happened to challenge that. Loads of manipulative music on the soundtrack too hinting you must feel this way because…Also I found the story extremely difficult to believe. In particular the whole motivational spark. Being half French, and knowing something of what sticklers for rules, protocol and for attention to detail the French are, I just couldn’t swallow that, in a entrance examination at the Paris Conservatory, someone would be allowed to crash through the door to the room like that, and that the president of the jury, Ariane Fouchécourt, would have given her her autograph with a smile. Bollocks is the only thing I can say to that, it would never have happened. Also did you believe that a young attractive woman with everything to live and strive for, would have seeked out the husband of Ariane, and get a job at his firm, on the off / half chance that she might get to know his family and Ariane better? Bit tenuous wouldn’t you say? And finally, how on earth did Melanie know that Ariane was going to give herself away to her, and make her feelings known in writing right at the end of her last night at the house anyway? I’m afraid at that point I simply gave up on it.

    You might think that anything can happen within a narrative, and I agree, but not without any insight into what is at stake as far as the characters psychological / emotional motivation and development is concerned. Without that, what you’re left with I think is just a plot, and an underdeveloped one in my opinion.

    Anyway I thought this film nowhere near as good as the Kid wasn’t that the same filmmaker?

    james

    jb says: Hello James, thanks for the comments. First, I don’t know a film called The Kid, and I don’t think Dercourt has made one with that title, so whether it’s a better or worse film I can’t say.

    I agree with your comments on the believability of the plot. Of course it wouldn’t have happened. Not only in France I think, I’m sure it wouldn’t have happened in the UK either. The film asked you to suspend your disbelief right from the beginning and if you were prepared to do that it provided a lot of enjoyment. The spirit of the film was more in the realm of a Hitchcock movie than in a realist depiction of contemporary life (although it did comment and refer, to French society in particular), and viewing it like that I derived a lot of satisfaction and much to think about.

  2. james says:

    Hello John,

    Sorry I got the name of the other film wrong, I meant “The Child”. A far better film in my opinion. Wasn’t that by the same filmmaker?

    It wouldn’t have happened; that’s right, and that’s the essential difference between this film and just about anything by Hitchcock. Which frankly I don’t think it’s in the same league as. However improbable a Hitchcock film narrative might be, the strongest sense of tension in them is the development of the main character, who is always transformed by events. That for me is good drama.

    “More in the realm of Hitchcock, than a realist depiction of contemporary life”

    Not sure about that at all:
    The Page Turner presents a completely implausible narrative line, within very much a real – world framework, and hopes its audience overlook gapping inconsistencies in the narrative, inconsistencies that render the story unbelievable, and therefore distance the viewer from what’s taking place on screen. All of that would have been fine, if, as in a Hitchcock film, the unfolding character development was written well enough to justify the turns in the story. I think you’re quite wrong to simply overlook that, writers strive endlessly to get these things right. Motivations need to be justified, elucidated, so the audience gains insight into the workings of a mind, however distorted and dark it may be, we don’t have to like that main character or what they’re doing, but we have to be taken in to their world, and to see things from their point of view. This is done cinematically by visually depicting the characters development, and this for me is where this film failed.

    James

    jb says: I can see what you’re saying and I do understand that you didn’t like the film. But it worked for me in spite of breaking the rules. I didn’t get character development but I did get obsession and I did get reminded of how a child’s mind can be damaged by trauma. I found the film entrancing and even though you’ve explained to me why I should feel guilty about that, I still enjoyed it, even now, with hindsight.

    People say that you get as many interpretations of a book as the book has readers. I imagine it’s the same with films. I read it differently to you. Surely that’s a valid position.

  3. KES says:

    Despite the numerous suspensions in disbelief, I loved the intricacies of plot and felt the signposting was done in a witty, knowing way. Yes, it was a detached experience but I found it refreshing not to be drawn into the protagonist’s emotional journey. Surely the point was to follow the path of revenge.

    Could anyone tell me what Bach/Schubert compositions were used in the soundtrack and/or whether the soundtrack is on sale?

    jb says: Hello Katherine, If you do a search for the soundtrack I’m sure you’ll find it’s on sale. There are selections from Schubert and Shostakovich as well as

  4. KES says:

    Thanks, jb. Have already done a search but no luck. Maybe it’s not been released yet. No worries, will seek out individual composers instead.

    jb says: You can get it here. And there’s a track listing on that page as well.

  5. KES says:

    Fantastic, thanks so much!

    jb says: Happy Christmas.

  6. MIGUEL says:

    On the money review. This film was right up my alley. She definitely reminded me of an icy Tippi Hedren in Marnie and had the enigmatic froideur of Deneuve in Belle de Jour or Repulsion. I don’t think we should look too closely for realistic character motivations or development; she’s still psychologically stuck at that formative experience in her childhood. Didn’t occur to me the political sub text you refer to but I’ll buy it. We’re all all products of random, or otherwise, acts committed on us in our youth.

    jb says: Didn’t think of it, but I can see the Tippi Hedren likeness. And how the psychological development is strangled by the childhood incident was convincing to me, and brought her to just the right degree of creepiness.

  7. Pippa Cuckson says:

    I have done a lot of page-turning for a number of professional British musicians – including, by coincidence, on stage at Radio France where some of this film was shot – so went to see it (with pianist friends) with particular interest. It is absolutely true that the page-turner can provide a comfort blanket for some pianists – particularly in difficult works that they may not have played often. Some will cultivate “regulars” instead of relying on anyone the concert hall can rustle up on the day, although this is hard to do as page-turning is usually an unpaid labour of love! Like your other correspondents I found elements of the film slightly unbelievable: the love note from Ariane could not possibly have been predicted when Melanie insinuated herself into the household. But for me a particularly sweet twist compensated for this deficiency. The obvious way to mess up a performance is by turning a page too soon so that pianist is seen to fumble a few bars, or to “forget” to turn back when there’s a repeat. Melanie got her revenge by simply absenting herself: a clever and unexpected touch. PC

    jb says: Hi Pippa, thanks for the comment. It’s nice to get a professional point of view. I also liked the twist you refer to. Before that we all thought that she would mess up the page-turning.

  8. Victoria says:

    I went to see this film the other night, and was intrigued to read this blog.

    I go along with James’ view that despite the outstanding performances, it was a problem that the film failed to expose the psychology of Melanie much more.
    In my opinion, revenge has to be one of, if not the most, negative, self-destructive impulses known to human nature; and I think it was a let down that we didn’t get a much greater sense of what Melanie’s obsession with that was taking out of her over the course of the film.

    jb says: Hi Victoria, Good to see you here.  I got the feeling that it took everything out of her. That there was little left of her by the time the impulse of revenge had taken her over. Still, I do understand what you mean, that there should have been more of an exposition of the disintegration of her character within the narrative.

  9. MIGUEL says:

    Whilst I think everyone here is entitled to their opinion, I personally don’t enjoy being spoonfed character motivation or “believable” plot details. What makes the film interesting is the singular psyche of revenge being slowly threaded through the narrative by this truly enigmatic ice queen. In an age where Haneke’s “Hidden” has proven so popular we should be able to fill in the blanks for ourselves and suspend our disbelief for the sake of reaching our own meanings and truths.

    jb says: Yeah, brevity for me, too, Miguel.

  10. Ed Bowman says:

    I thought this was a terrific film. I cannot think of a contemporary Hollywood production that could match its quality. There are few films made these days that are so richly layered Melanie is established almost immediately as a psychopathic personality. She makes success in her music test the key factor in charting her future life. It may be that she did not want to face up to her own shortcomings as a musician. Whilst the interruption during her examination was improbable in true life, it was central to the plot, which was an examination of the true horrors of Melanie’s mind. As she leaves the building, she attacks a boy playing on a piano by slamming the piano lid down on his hands. Next, we see her alone in her flat. She is quiet – almost a recluse. She does not seem very interested in men, but she can turn on the flirtatious charm when she meets a young man.
    What came across to me was how Melanie studied her victims with such intense concentration. Nothing else mattered. She finds their weak spots. She disguises the intensity of her hatred. She lacks affect. She never loses her cool even when groped by the cellist. She is quick witted enough to inflict a grievous injury on him. She is totally mad. In that respect there is a connection with terrorism. It has nothing to do with Iraq other than to observe that any conflict will attract psychopaths in need of a cause in order to justify and legitimise their particular lunacy.

    jb says: Hi Ed, thanks for the insights. Some of us really enjoyed this film. I was also drawn to make the same comparison with contemporary Hollywood productions.

  11. Victoria says:

    Well I didn’t feel that the film provided me with any real psychological insight, character or motivation wise, as far as the dynamic of revenge was meaning to her. It seems to me one can impose what ever meaning and relevance one likes because it’s got subtitles. I believe that it was just underwritten.
    Still I’m off now for a spoon feed, and a nappy change. Goo goo..
    Vic.

    jb says: Hi Vic. Don’t forget to clean your teeth.

  12. Patti Abbott says:

    I thought it was a brilliant film, all the more suspenseful for its quiet moments. And you are very right, Hollywood would have to make her actions bigger, less subtle. So much of the movie was in facial expressions, small gestures. It managed to create a terrifying atmosphere with only a few acts of violence, namely the bow to the foot move. The palpable horror was overwhelming.

    I also love your book list. I hope they don’t destroy Revolutionary Road with the upcoming movie. That was a sublime book–along with Easter Parade and Eleven Kinds of Loneliness.

    jb says: Hey, Patti, don’t go see Revolutionary Road. I haven’t seen it, of course, but I know it won’t live up to the book.

  13. Werth says:

    John,

    I like how your one blog gets this whole dialogue started, it’s great discussion! The insights from the response to your review are all great, and very engaging. I just got the movie on netflix, I wouldn’t have known about it, but by chance I came across it on youtube!

    James,

    You said, “She had no emotional arc, she ended the same way she started; neither learning anything about the nature of revenge, herself, the wider world, why you have to let go etc. ”

    This is a great point, but I would contend that showing the character in her stationary mental and emotional state revealed how completely consuming and debilitating revenge is, and that in seeking revenge, a person cannot grow, but in fact they are frozen in time, not allowing themselves the future, the future for them is the extension or the abridgment of that traumatic moment in the present (her piano audition) and I think this is what we saw throughout the film. She never progressed, she never regressed, she was stationary, not moving forward or backward.

    R. Werth

  14. Werth says:

    And that’s the dangerous game you play with revenge… you sacrafice precious time that can never be returned.

  15. maria says:

    Hi, maybe the dedication, determination, work ethic and focus that were initially required for melanie’s music became subverted into her revenge fantasy and I agree a case of arrested development ensued. Maybe all creative people have a slight madness? Two things that were left hinted at 1. Maybe Melanie was behind the hit and run? Her smile when hearing the effect that this had on Ariane was intriging Also 2. The phone calls to her mother reassuring her that all was going well..just the usual phone calls to a mum? or was mum aware of the plan and had nurtured the madness? Why show these scenes if not to tease us of this possibility? I found the film all the more interesting for NOT spelling out melanies interior world.

  16. Mike Saunders says:

    I chanced on this film, knowing nothing about it, and missed the first ten minutes. However, I was drawn very deeply into it by the characters of Ariane and Melanie: both beautiful women, and Ariane reminding me a little of the great Arletty.
    I guessed that the motivation of Melanie’s job applications was revenge, and the suspense of what form it would take built throughout the film.

    It was also an engrossing study of bourgeoise French manners, mainly within the family itself. The occasional appearance of the other two trio partners showed the tension between the necessity for artistic perfection and the irrepressibility of male sexuality.

    Although Ariane is the sort of villain of the piece, she gained a lot of my sympathy when she revealed that everything the family had came from her husband’s side. Her rudeness towards Melanie is partially excusable in that Ariane is a victim of the fame she pursues. Autograph-signing confirms her status and importance whilst, at the same time, she has lost touch with her other instincts and inclinations, revealed by her eventual admission of her love for Melanie.

  17. Saranya says:

    I saw the film and read some of the comments and your blog. What I feel is that the pianist’s surprise and alarm at the page turner’s disappearance at the right time went away too soon due to her love for the latter. This I found somewhat strange. Secondly, if the pianist’s sons fingers were destroyed forever (which I was not sure on) then that is too bad for the page turner to do I feel. It makes us feel her as less human.

  18. veronika says:

    Hi all, i thought this film was great. Being a cellist myself and playing in a trio I know how it is with musicians. the choice of music was beautiful, the acting great, especially for catherine frot who usually plays “ditsy” parts. I wonder if anyone knows the location of the chateau outside paris. it looks like the chateau of yves montand/simone signoret. i saw a docu of simone and they showed a “house” which looked identical.
    I watched this movie for just enjoyment, not going into psychological “dealings”. quite believable that ariane could have fallen for melanie, because of her being so fragile.