The woman offscreen at the start of Mathieu Amalric’s “Hold Me Tight” is examining a matrix of face-down Polaroids, turning them over, and getting frustrated at what she’s not finding. Or perhaps not remembering?
Her name is Clarisse (Vicky Krieps), and she can next be seen quietly gathering some things in the pinched light of a bluish-orange dawn and slipping out of a house that still holds a sleeping husband, son, and daughter. Her actions of her feel purposeful, but also anguished, maybe even desperate.
The act of leaving — and the prospect of leaving behind — is at the heart of Amalric’s emotional mystery which, as its fragments and enigmas unfold, isn’t necessarily a journey for viewers to solve but rather a state of mind to experience and understand: the bewitchingly poignant story of a woman’s fertile, possibly perilous, coping mechanism.
Adapting a play by Claudine Galea into something temporarily fleet, Amalric has, with his sixth feature as director, contributed a touching, sensory-driven new chapter to the cinema of escape and loss, and he’s very fortunate to have the luminous Krieps driving the narrative (while driving herself in a vintage ’70s Pacer that becomes a kind of memory pod for her character).
As Clarisse heads to the sea, Amalric intercuts with her abandoned husband Marc (Arieh Worthalter) getting ready for work, telling their grade-school-age children Lucie (Anne-Sophie Bowen-Chatet) and Paul (Sacha Ardilly) in the morning bustle that mommy has gone on a trip. Behind the wheel, pride and sadness play across Clarisse’s face as she listens to a cassette tape of Lucie practicing her piano scales; she talks out loud, encouraging her daughter from her. But we know something is off about this scenario, because certain things Clarisse says — to herself, to others, as incantations, in one-way dialogues — suggest her trip de ella, or the reason for her trip de ella, is an invention.
It isn’t exactly cryptic what she’s needing to process. When the familiar air of flashback is folded into hard-working editor François Gedigier’s cross-cutting, we soon realize there’s a fateful trip to an alpine lodge in this family’s near past. What each new piece of information gets us wondering is how Clarisse is managing her present de ella, which begins to resemble an active illusion forged out of remembered details, hopes, even regrets. As she (and the viewer) awaits a cathartic spring thaw, our protagonist frames her pain de ella as a canvas on which she can envision a timeline of her husband and children without her, before she has to accept life as the other way around.
That Amalric doesn’t treat this sorrowful limbo of Clarisse’s as a story beholden to some shocking twist is to his credit. “Hold Me Tight” would rather find strange, sympathetic wonder in its narrator’s unreliability, and even warmth and humor in the places where Clarisse’s flights of her from her current nightmare of her take her. Lucie’s piano playing, in particular — which sparks the classical pieces that act as flavorful diegetic and non-diegetic scoring — gets a suitably wishful treatment as she becomes a teenager, when Juliette Benveniste takes over the role. (The adolescent Paul is played by Aurèle Grzesik.)
Sustaining this kind of time-shifting, imaginative high-wire act doesn’t always generate a steady stream of insight, and the pacing can flag. But Amalric’s generosity of feeling and commitment to a percolating, hypnotic poetry of image, sound and human expression is noteworthy. Christophe Beaucarne’s France-in-winter cinematography is softly melancholy when it needs to be, crisp with sunlight at other times; the overall effect is of scrapbook moments bursting to life woven with scenes from a slightly heavier, crumbled reality.
And as our guide for what’s real and what’s not, Krieps shows once again why her spiky European elegance is so well-primed for portrayals of charm, intelligence, and vulnerability. She just has one of those faces that you search for clues, and she can suggest so much with how she carries herself. In Clarisse’s restless game with recall and absence lies the chance for Krieps to be flirty, drunk, hopeful, angry, sexy, unmoored, and determined, but one coloring she studiously avoids is sentimentality: you wonder how many lesser actors might have been tempted there by what the character goes through.
Thankfully, “Hold Me Tight,” with Amalric’s alert, empathetic stewardship and Krieps’ gripping portrayal, sets aside the banality of grief’s burden for something more alive and elusive, but no less affecting.
“Hold Me Tight” opens September 9 in NYC and September 16 in LA via Kino Lorber.