Marie’s Story (2014)
Editor’s Notes: Marie’s Story opens in limited theatrical release today.
Based on the life of Marie Heurtin, blind and deaf from birth, Marie’s Story tells the tale of the young girl’s harrowing struggle to escape what her biographer once deemed a life imprisoned. It’s the late 1800s, and Marie (Ariana Rivoire), who has lived in rural France for her entire short life, is brought by her father to the Larnay Institute. Her family hopes this school for the deaf run by a dedicated group of nuns can help them with their violent, almost feral, little girl, but the Mother Superior (Brigitte Catillon) declares the institute unable to handle the challenge. She sends the girl away at first, but a young nun, Sister Marguerite (Isabelle Carré), brings her back to the school, certain that she can help Marie.
This is compounded by the fact that much of the story seems so tailor-made for the screen that at times it’s hard to believe any of it ever happened.
In the months that follow, the tubercular Sister Marguerite displays almost superhuman amounts of patience and physical stamina when dealing with Marie, and small victories are won. These moments are compelling, yet for American audiences, the similarities between Marie Heurtin’s and Helen Keller’s stories will likely be too great to overcome. Every violent outburst and happy moment in the sun with Marie looks and feels precisely the way it did the first time we encountered The Miracle Worker, a story most Americans have heard in several iterations. This isn’t Marie’s Story’s fault, let alone Marie Heurtin’s, but it is fatally distracting and, to a point, calls into question the purpose of this film.
This is compounded by the fact that much of the story seems so tailor-made for the screen that at times it’s hard to believe any of it ever happened. Yet as implausible as it is for young Marie to be enamored of a pocket knife, for example, that blade is no fanciful flourish to create unearned tension; a 1909 article entitled “A French Helen Keller” specifically mentions the knife and its importance in her communication breakthrough. There’s plenty of interesting facts about her life that are left unexplored, however, things that might have made Marie seem fully human, rather than a whisper-thin caricature designed to draw tears and sympathy.
Marie’s Story is lovely to look at, with pleasant, well-lit pastoral scenes and austere interiors, and Carré gives an exceptional performance as the nun determined to finally reach Marie.
The nuns and their charges often act like little shits, if you’ll pardon the expression, and the film treats their harassment and cruel decisions as either normal or, on some occasions, lighthearted fun. There is a shocking lack of common sense amongst these characters, people who apparently thought nothing of leaving Marie to wander sightlessly amongst gardening tools and the kind of 19th-century wooden furniture that could break a foot if one stumbled into it. It’s not that the film means to portray Larnay as dangerous, but that no one involved thought to coordinate the visual aesthetic with the narrative, and thus created a version of the institute that could not believably support Marie in a safe and nurturing manner.
There are other issues with the film’s tone, such as contrivances in the timing of certain milestone events, all evenly spaced and occurring at the exact moment they need to move the story forward. Director Jean-Pierre Améris also presents Marie’s sensory behavior, especially her touching and sniffing of faces, as not just sensuous but sexual. When she joins Sister Marguerite in bed, what should be a kind of mother-daughter bonding instead looks like foreplay. Sometimes, the camera lingers a little too long on a tangle of bare legs during a violent encounter, or draws the eye to the accidental cupping of breasts, centered exactly in the middle of the frame. It never feels authentic or necessary, just voyeuristic, as though the film is sarcastically scolding the audience for being drawn to the story of Marie at all.
Still, Marie’s Story is lovely to look at, with pleasant, well-lit pastoral scenes and austere interiors, and Carré gives an exceptional performance as the nun determined to finally reach Marie. Newcomer Ariana Rivoire is compelling in the physically and emotionally draining role of Marie, giving a forceful and unique performance. Unfortunately, these fine performances are often obscured by the film’s distance from its own characters. Rather than embrace the complicated humanity of its characters, Marie’s Story instead devotes itself to crafting a cynical, by-the-numbers melodrama meant to draw tears from an audience it doesn’t really care about.
Rather than embrace the complicated humanity of its characters, Marie's Story instead devotes itself to crafting a cynical, by-the-numbers melodrama meant to draw tears from an audience it doesn't really care about.