‘Madeleine Collins’: Film Review | Venice 2021

Virginie Efira (‘Benedetta’) plays a French woman ensnared by a double life in this tense psychological drama from director Antoine Barraud, which premiered in the Mostra’s Venice Days sidebar.

“And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife; and you may ask yourself, ‘Well, how did I get here?’ ” are the words David Byrne bellowed on the classic Talking Heads track “Once in a Lifetime.”

In French director Antoine Barraud’s twisted, slightly unhinged and emotionally taut psychological drama, Madeleine Collins, the question is posed differently: How does a beautiful woman in her 40s find herself living in two houses, with two husbands and two entirely separate families?

Madeleine Collins

The Bottom Line

You only live twice.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Days)
Cast: Virginie Efira, Bruno Salomone, Quim Gutiérrez, Loïse Benguerel, Jacqueline Bisset, Valérie Donzelli, Nadav Lapid
Director: Antoine Barrau
Screenwriter: Antoine Barraud, in collaboration with Héléna Klotz

1 hour 46 minutes

It takes the film some time to reveal how its heroine, Judith (or Margot or Madeleine, or whatever else she decides to call herself) found herself there, living a double life filled with lies and deceit, but also with lots of love and affection. Viewers looking for answers may be frustrated by a scenario that seems to be forever spinning out of control, and yet part of the attraction of Madeleine Collins is in seeing how far Barraud is willing take things until providing a reasonable explanation. It’s a tricky balancing act that’s one-third Hitchcockian intrigue and one-third Chabrolian study of broken bourgeois homes, with the final third bordering on kitsch.

It’s also an opportunity for Belgian actress Virginie Efira to deftly take on another challenging role after starring in Paul Verhoeven’s scandalous nunsploitation flick Benedetta, which premiered in Cannes a few months ago. Here she plays a different kind of woman having a midlife crisis: one who has built up an elaborate system of twin identities, acting as a loving partner and mother to two households at once, until that system starts to unravel under the strain caused by such an illogical situation.

After a prologue that makes sense only much later on, when we find out what’s really been happening, we’re thrown into Judith’s binary lives. In the first life she’s married to star orchestra conductor Melvil Fauvet (Bruno Salomone), with whom she has two children and lives in a comfortably large apartment in Paris. In the second life, Judith is a resident of Geneva, works as a translator and is coupled with the caring, often intense Abdel (Quim Gutiérrez), with whom she shares a young daughter, Ninon (Loïse Benguerel).

If this were a movie by Luis Buñuel, then the whole thing might be a surrealist gag. But Barraud takes his subject very seriously — to the point that some of the predicaments Judith finds herself in can seem unintentionally humorous. In one memorable scene, Abdel, who’s aware that Judith has another family in Paris, decides to bring another woman home after a date — if Judith can have two partners, why can’t he? — and Judith has no choice but to leave them the bedroom while she sleeps on the couch. It’s sad but also a bit silly, and Judith seems the only one to blame for putting herself in such a spot.

Why anyone would want to live like this is the real question we start asking ourselves, over and over again. When Barraud finally gives us an answer, it’s one with enough emotional gravitas to partially warrant what we’ve been watching. Without spoiling anything, suffice to say that Madeleine Collins is not an allegory about the dangers of polyamorous love. Judith is not bending over backward to have open affairs with multiple partners — she’s trying to maintain simultaneous relationships that are highly traditional in nature.

The tension between those competing narratives is the driving force of the movie, which milks suspense out of the many sequences where Judith has to conceal one life from the other. Hitchcock’s Vertigo comes to mind in places — the names Judith and Madeleine are clear references to the characters played by Kim Novak — and there’s a similar story at work here, with a woman who lies about who she is to preserve something that’s been lost. The difference is that Barraud doesn’t always control his material like Hitch, forcing the audience to accept a fair amount of folly for too long, with the ends not entirely justifying the means.

Still, both director and actress deserve credit for being fully committed to such a far-fetched proposition, and Madeleine Collins can be very watchable at times, even if what we’re watching doesn’t always feel believable. Alongside Efira’s fraught and measured performance, which shows how well she can deal with many conflicting emotions within the same scene, the strong supporting cast includes Israeli auteur Nadav Lapid, who earnestly plays a lowlife forger smitten by Judith (or Margot or Madeleine), and actress-director Valérie Donzelli, who cameos as a loopy opera singer. Cinematographer Gordon Spooner keeps the action claustrophobic, confining us to a series of interiors where this bizarre and rather endearing dual drama plays out.

Full credits

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Days)
Cast: Virginie Efira, Bruno Salomone, Quim Gutiérrez, Loïse Benguerel, Jacqueline Bisset, Valérie Donzelli, Nadav Lapid
Production company: Les Films du Bélier
Director: Antoine Barraud
Screenwriter: Antoine Barraud, in collaboration with Héléna Klotz
Producer: Justin Taurand
Director of photography: Gordon Spooner
Production designer: Katia Wyszkop
Costumer designer: Claire Dubien
Editor: Anita Roth
Casting directors: Sarah Teper, Stéphane Batut
Sales: Charades
In French, English

1 hour 46 minutes