Review: From the Land of the Moon (Mal de Pierres)

Marion Cotillard in From the Land of the Moon

From the Land of the Moon (Mal de Pierres) is the story of Gabrielle (Marion Cotillard), a passionate romantic living in a mundane world. It’s in French with English subtitles.

The story is told in a flashback. Gabrielle and her family are driving to a piano competition where her son will play when she sees an address and leaps from the car. She enters a house and sees the name Sauvage at the door. From there we jump into the flashback.

Directed by Nicole Garcia and based on a novel by Milena Agus, From the Land of the Moon tells the story of a woman who wants a passionate, sensuous life – a life like something out of Emily Brontë. She develops a romantic attachment to her teacher in high school that is an embarrassment to the entire family.

Because of her romantic ideation and because she frequently keels over with pain, her parents think she’s hysterical and insane. They think her pain is an act.

Her mother arranges for her to marry a bricklayer named José (Alex Brendemühl). She tells Gabrielle it’s either marry the bricklayer or be sent to an asylum. She marries the bricklayer.

Marion Cotillard and Alex Brendemühl in From the Land of the Moon
Okay, now we’re married. Let’s get the hell out of here.

Gabrielle’s parents set José up in a construction business in a coastal town and Gabrielle and José begin their marriage. Gabrielle insists she doesn’t love José and vows not to sleep with him. She finally agrees to sex with him if he gives her 200 francs as he would a prostitute.

There’s a grim sex scene as the couple have sex for the first time. Marion Cotillard is outstanding in every way in this film, but the way she stares at José during this encounter like he is a science project under a microscope is one of the strongest moments of the film.

This is the only sex scene we see between them. I wondered through the rest of the movie why a woman obsessed with sensuality and sex didn’t explore sex with her husband and built-in sex partner. They lived as strangers through most of the film. José was on the outer edges of Gabrielle’s journey, but I thought he loved her in spite of her rejection of him.

Eventually a doctor recognizes that Gabrielle’s pain is due to kidney stones, the Mal de Pierres of the original title. She’s sent to a clinic in Switzerland for a 6 week cure. There she meets André Sauvage (Louis Garrel), a lieutenant fresh from serving in the Indochina War. He has only one kidney, which is failing, and he’s bedridden. Gabrielle falls in love with André. Wildy, passionately – just as she did with her teacher years before.

I have to comment on the cure. These days we treat kidney stones with ultrasound and lasers to break them down so they can be passed without pain. Then, a person was placed in front of a supportive bar and a fire hose was aimed at their lower back. Being pounded by tons of water apparently breaks up kidney stones, too. André’s treatment mainly involved pain management.

André plays the piano beautifully. Gabrielle learns this on the one evening when he felt strong enough to go downstairs to the dining room with the other patients.

On a night when José came to visit Gabrielle in the clinic, André was sent away to Lyon, where kidney patients went to die. José leaves and André returns to Gabrielle and her bed. André and Gabrielle share the beautiful, sensuous sex she longs for.

When Gabrielle returns home after her cure, she learns she is pregnant. A son is born who shows talent as a pianist. At age 14 he enters a piano competition.

That brings us to the end of the flashback and the moment where everything in the film turns. The turning of the plot took me completely by surprise. It was a surprise but it also suddenly made sense of everything that had gone before. It made me think of A Beautiful Mind.

The end of the film offers a ray of hope for Gabrielle and José, who may finally figure out how to have a real marriage.

I wouldn’t call this a great film, although Marion Cotillard gave a brilliant performance. It toyed with the viewer. That will make some people say, “What the hell just happened?” and other people say, “Oh, that makes sense.” I felt a little of both and some surprise that the plot twist was so effective.

From the Land of the Moon (Mal de Pierres) laid out the human need for romantic love, but made it clear that finding it isn’t always easy or permanently satisfying.

I distinctly remember the first time I saw Marion Cotillard. It was in 2007’s La Vie en Rose. She played Edith Piaf. She displayed enormous talent the first time I saw her and she has not disappointed since.

From the Land of the Moon (Mal de Pierres) was nominated for awards at Cannes and in the 2017 César Awards in France (the French version of the Oscar). So, many critics put it in the great film category, while I do not. Fascinating, compelling – I’ll give it those adjectives.

The 2017 film is available on Amazon Video and from Netflix.

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