Volume 75, Number 35 | January 18 - 24, 200

Film

WHEN THE SEA RISES
Written and directed by Gilles Porte and Yolande Moreau
Starring Yolande Moreau and Wim Willaert
In French with English subtitles
Through January 26
Cinema Village
22 East 12th Street between University and Fifth Ave.
(212-924-3363; cinemavillage.com)

Two lonely hearts who find love by flashlight

New Yorker Films
Yolande Moreau and Wim Willaert are thrown together on the road in “When the Sea Rises.”

By Jerry Tallmer

One of the nicest sensations in this world is to have a movie sneak up on you, out of nowhere, and knock you for a loop.

“When the Sea Rises” (“Quand la Mere Monte”), which opened last Friday at the Lincoln Plaza uptown and Cinema Village downtown, doesn’t really come out of nowhere – it won various 2005 Best Actress, Best Actor, and Best Film awards in France – but if more than three people in this city ever heard of it until now (the distributor, the publicist, and whoever translated the program notes), I’d be much surprised.

It in fact bears some relation to another onetime sleeper — a famous sleeper — that I happened to hate. That was Delbert Mann and Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty” (1955) in which two lonely people who are looked upon, even by themselves, as unattractive — I believe the term was “dogs” — find one another, and love, in spite of it all.

The two people in “When the Sea Rises” are no great beauties, but they don’t go looking for love or hunger for love — until, by accident, they are thrown into it.

The accident is a rental car that breaks down — the car bearing itinerant actress-comedienne Irene Delcourt (real actress/co-screenwriter/co-director Yvonne Moreau) to the next small French town for her next one-woman show.

Along comes a good Samaritan by moped, an easygoing now-and-again carnival worker named Dries (Wim Willaert), who starts the car and is given a ticket to her show by way of thanks. When, that night, he takes in the performance, she spotlights him (by flashlight) and summons him up on stage to be her “chicken,” her stooge, in an “Ain’t it awful” murder farce.

The next night, in the next town, he shows up on his own hook, and buys his way in. And hooked is what he is and they both presently will be, only barely troubled by the fact that she has a husband and young son back home in Paris.

If you begin to get a little smattering here of another famous lonely-hearts movie, one that I, like a great many other people, adore to this day, Federico Fellini’s “La Strada” (1954), that’s more to the point. Feeling is all. And while we’re at it, let’s throw in Stanley Donen and Fred Raphael’s “Two for the Road” (Albert Finney, Audrey Hepburn, 1967).

“Where the Sea Rises” is a first and remarkable full-length (89 minutes) feature by the team of Yvonne Moreau and co-screenwriter, co-director Gilles Porte, a duet dubbed “Yin and Yang” by actor Willaert. Apple-cheeked Ms. Moreau (no relation, so far as I can scan, to Jeanne Moreau) is a considerable frayed-around-the-edges handful of woman who reminds me, in features, smile, straightforwardness, and inherent emotion, of Off-Broadway’s own Crystal Field. Her silences are, to say the least, pregnant.

Irene’s one-woman show, “A Dirty Business,” delivered from within a sort of striped nightshirt, with reddened hands and arms, behind a big-nosed, red-nosed scary female mask, the only props a wooden chair and some fake guns, is the show with which Yvonne Moreau actually toured France, Belgium, and French Canada in the 1980s.

For his part, there is something about Wim Willaert as Dries that reminds me of Yves Montand, both in face and (well cultivated) relaxed attitude. Dries’s job of the moment, as it turns out, is toting 12-foot-tall carnival giants in street parades, in particular a character named Totor. “I’m a chicken who carries giants,” the guy shyly brags to Irene.

When Dries and his buddies are horsing around for the benefit of Irene, and one of them crows: “I went to a Molière and was bored shitless,” you could swear you’re right there when this is happening and you are one of them. They’ve taken you — the movie has taken you in. Taken me, anyway.

Even a brief incidental moment, the awkwardness of a provincial TV reporter (Jacky Berroyer) pushing his inept questions on the visiting actress, is real enough to give you toothache. Set all this as a tree-lined road picture in the strangely (for one who has never been there) evocative natural and industrial landscape along the French-Belgian border — complete with a steeple that moves in the distance a la Proust, transposing one’s viewpoint, power it well with a burst of “La Traviata,” and you have something close to an aching, awakening dream.

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