I will not put this movie (French 2018), in “The Arts” section because it is a psychological drama that hits on the topic of sexual abuse, narcissism and women being left alone for several generations; much like Antonia’s Line (Netherlands, 1995). The film starts out in the 1950’s post WWII France. If you are a great film lover, as I am, you will know when you see the cover and the title, it just hits you – I must watch this film. What really piqued my interest was the title “An Impossible Love,” which hit home for me. I saw other things in the description that I ignored at first until it came up on the screen. I love the way Catherine Corsini handles abuse of a child in this film. Extremely subtle. The topic does not even come up until much later in the film. The child’s older lover tells the mother, not to let her daughter visit the father anymore. The shock on the mother’s face, to realize a man she has loved for 16 years, but who has rejected her all the same, is now sexually abusing their daughter. The shock to finally take in the missing pieces of this puzzle “Rachel” has created, her fantasy that he was a great lover, that they had something special together, suddenly unravels before her eyes. Virginie Efira (with the help of the cameraman), gives a somatic demonstration of soul searching, confusion, awareness and reality in just a few seconds of this film.
The narcissism begins at the beginning of the relationship. Rachel admires a young man, Philippe, who is paying a lot of attention to her. Their courtship seems to develop as their daughter is narrating the scenes and telling us timelines. Philippe is very attentive, loving, suave and sophisticated but very egotistical and definitely sure of himself. He never says “I love you,” except when she asks him if he does. He says it once and gets it over with. At the onset of this relationship, he is educating her to be like him, sharing his books with her, filling her head with knowledge that he has to impart. In this type of narcissistic relationship, the man never cares to know much about the woman. You don’t realize this though, as a victim, because you are so captivated by his charm and wit. He is interested in her money, she is half Jewish through her father and he makes several prejudiced references toward her about her ethnicity. Rachel is only focused on how passionate they are together, how much fun they have together, how in love she is with Philippe. Meanwhile, Philippe is living his own life. She is as well but she is unable to let go.
The relationship goes on for sixteen years, with long breaks in between. I believe seven years was the longest. He tells her before she gets pregnant that he will never marry her or anyone else; he implies. When she gets pregnant, the one time he asks if he can ejaculate inside of her, he tells her that he never lied to her. He was upfront from the beginning and nothing will change. They are eating crab at a seaside restaurant. First, he indulges the moment by telling her how wonderful the time has been together that weekend and isn’t the food delicious. Then, he says to her “We both made the choice to get pregnant.” As if they are both at fault, and him choosing not to marry her should not be something either of them should feel bad about. Of course, they are both responsible for getting pregnant, no doubt about this. However, in that moment, she was more naïve and while both are choosing, they must both choose to now take responsibility. He is saying he will not take any. A narcissist will always find a way to make something seem as if there is a way out. Blaming and twisting the story around to make the victim feel as if they should have known better and now the victim is going to pay the price but not the narcissist. He also lets her know that “if” she had money, he might think about marrying her.
Later, Philippe comes to Rachel and again, I knew he was going to tell her he was getting married. In this case, he was already married and he shares this with her after getting her into bed again. He says that this woman was German and naturally, they are good at loving and caring for their men after what they went through as a country during World War II. Ignoring the fact that all European women “went through” during WWII. This is a slap in the face to Rachel who has loved him and has been loyal to him this entire time. He makes other snide comments such as the fact that the German woman’s father had money, which made it easier for him to hit her up for. We had already learned that Rachel’s Jewish father had none and this was during one of Philippe’s snide comments to her about her ethnicity. Now the narcissist was saying “If you had had money, I would have married you but you were penniless.” She strains in telling him that he will sleep in her mother’s room for the night and then leave in the morning. He attempts to seduce her, which is difficult for her, but she does keep him from touching her too much and is finally able to push him away. I explain this scene carefully because the victim struggles emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually when there is a psychological bond with the narcissist.
The character Rachel has no backbone in this movie. She is very responsible and a great mother but lets Philippe off every time. She willingly takes in all the philosophy he has to offer her, she craves this cerebral exchange. Her own father is not in the picture and so Philippe is giving her a taste of being with a man and what it is like in their world. Women, who do not have father’s in their life or who have traumatic relationships with their father, run the risk of meeting up with these type of men. They don’t have a complete understanding of healthy attachment to males. She never questions anything Philippe has to say, no matter how emotionally damaging it might be. She tells him she does not expect money from him for their daughter and you sense that he feels no obligation either. It is as if she is entitling him and he expects this. The only time she yells at him is when she is at her wit’s end that he will not legally claim their daughter at 14, so that she can have his name. As a viewer, I was somewhat relieved that she finally asked for something. But then, the price she paid for this came shortly thereafter.
The director, Catherine Corsini, shows dad going into the hotel room while the daughter is finishing up packing. Mom is out getting the car and bringing it around. You see nothing but I sensed, in that moment, that something bad will happen. No reason shown, no real look, nothing unusual. The camera then goes outside to mom bringing the car around. She is waiting for her daughter and Philippe to walk toward the car. It takes some time. She looks concerned. Editing aside, they are now half-way from the door to the car, whereas before they were nowhere to be seen. Philippe is carrying the child’s luggage. The daughter looks distraught and blank. She gets in the car and he puts the luggage in the trunk. Mom says to the daughter “You can take charge of the map,” (or something like that) and the daughter does this willingly and nothing is said. The father says goodbye, no usual kisses to mom and the daughter does not look at him or wave goodbye. This is how the audience should know.
What is interesting in that non-scene, is that whenever mom and dad got together, they had amazing sexual interludes with each other. Make-up sex from all the years or months they had been apart. Nothing is ever enough for the narcissist unless he determines it is enough. I have not mentioned up until this point that Rachel is a beautiful woman, very sexy, a great body, a man would be very happy to be with someone like her. She was very loving and attentive to him. But, after all of these years, (14) she forced his hand about claiming the child as his own. At this point, he had no real relationship to the child. He was completely detached and barely had any physical touch – that would be normal between a father and daughter. Now, he needed to ruin his daughter and to separate what was between him and Rachel. He needed to show he had control of this situation; even without saying it. Who knows what he told his daughter in order that she would stay quiet about the liaison. When we hear it later from her black lover (who is 30 and she is 16), he tells mother that the girl’s father has been sodomizing her for years. Philippe had to demoralize her and, by sodomizing her, he was taking on this action unable to look at her, so as if she wouldn’t be his daughter he was having sex with but a person he could not see. Perhaps he made something up in his head that it was someone else and not her. I am not empathizing but analyzing here.
One very interesting point to show is that the relationship between daughter and mother begins to unravel at this point; once the truth comes out. It was already unraveling but the mother was so fraught with insecurity in the newfound relationship between father and daughter, that she became blind to the changes in her daughter’s moods and behaviors. I felt the daughter was acting just like her father, in her coldness and sharp comments, but I also knew what was going on behind the scenes that mother did not. The daughter mentioned at one point that she was uncomfortable with mom and dad being in bed together, shortly after the abuse (that mom did not yet know about). Later, the daughter punishes mom by being with the black lover, whom mom had already said she fancied. The mom does nothing, just as she does nothing when Philippe treats her like crap. She has become accustomed to just letting people walk all over her by now.
After mom finds out about the sexual abuse, the film goes forward, mom is now married to a man her age and she has suddenly turned grey. This is poignant because prior to the disclosure, mom has kept up her youthful appearance throughout the film and there has been very little aging seen on her face or body. It is subtle, just like everything else in this film but not too obvious. This is symbolic of the mother trying so much to remain the young woman she was when she met Philippe. As she only sees him from time to time, she wants to maintain the youthful glow that the film shows us without telling us. This is why it is a huge shift to see her on camera, suddenly with a full head of gray hair and her face has aged much more. Naturally, many years have gone by and her daughter is in her twenties; symbolic nonetheless.
Philippe gets Alzheimer’s and the irony is noted by the characters. He can now wash away his terrible ways literally as he will not remember anything.
At the end of the movie, mother and daughter reunite in person and, as with all French movies, the daughter intellectualizes why her father was the way he was, as their two hands embrace and heal from this tragic past.