Olivier, Olivier: Agnieszka Holland’s Powerful Tale of a Boy’s Disappearance and Reappearance

Women directors often bring a fresh point of view, a uniquely female sensibility to intimate movies about family relationships.

This was the case last year with Martha Coolidge’s beautiful and underestimated Rumbling Rose. It is most evident in two new movies opening this week, Agnieszka Holland’s Olivier Olivier and Gillian Armstrong’s The Last Days of Chez Nous.

The two pictures deal with dysfunctional families undergoing fateful changes, and their directors display similar strategy: a strong resistance to make their material schmaltzy and melodramatic–a dangerous trap of many American movies. In most other ways, however, the two movies are different.

The Polish-Jewish director Holland, who began her career as a screenwriter for the great filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, made her mark in the international film scene in 1985 with Angry Harvest, a complex yet tender story of the relationship between a prosperous Polish farmer and a female Jewish refugee during WWII. Last year, Holland scored a critical and commercial success with Europa Europa, a real-life fascinating tale of survival during the Holocaust. In her new movie, based on a French newspaper story about a child’s disappearance, Holland relates another compelling fable, one about faith and denial.

Set in rural France, Olivier Olivier centers on the Duval family, which consists of Serge (Francois Cluzet), a stern country veterinarian, his domineering wife Elisabeth (Brigitte Rouan), and their two children: Nadine and Olivier. Elisabeth devotes most of her time to the children, but she doesn’t conceal who is her favorite. In fact, she dotes on Olivier to such an extent that it results in jealousy on the part of her husband and rivalry on the part of her daughter.

The Duvals experience marital tensions that somehow seem manageable and under control. That is until the day Olivier is sent to deliver lunch to his sick grandmother and never comes back. Olivier’s vanishing causes instant recriminations within the family, soon tearing it apart. The local police officer promises to conduct an extensive search and he does, but to no effect. The family disintegrates, when Serge accepts a position in Africa and Elizabeth, still waiting for Olivier’s return, refuses to join him.

The family members react to Olivier’s disappearance in different way, but it is Elisabeth who is totally shattered. And in the powerful, heartbreaking performance of Brigitte Rouan, the grieving mother is shown to be on the verge of mental breakdown, if not madness.

The narrative then jumps to six years later, when the same police officer arrests a male prostitute who looks a bit like Olivier. Elisabeth immediately accepts him as her long-lost son, but Nadine is at first suspicious. Soon, however, Olivier reveals secrets that only an insider family member can know. There are also intimations of an incestuous relationship between Olivier and Nadine. The mystery, which can’t be revealed here, is whether or not Olivier is the real son.

Holland is excellent at conveying the emotional truth of her characters, but her direction is often crude, without much nuance or detail. The editing is jarring, terminating crucial scenes all too abruptly. Holland also lacks a sense of humor–the hugging and kissing scenes between mother and son are potentially strong dramatic (and comic) stuff. They suggest the subtle eroticism of a similar situation in Louis Malle’s great coming-of age movie, Murmur of the Heart, but Holland is either uninterested or incapable of delineating these possibilities.

Like Holland’s Europa Europa, Olivier Olivier has many twists and turns. Holland establishes a serious tone, layered with many Freudian insights. The film works up a lot of narrative steam, though it is lacking the necessary visual style that would have made the fable a great, instead of the good movie that it is.