Director Marc Dugain has triumphed twice here – his exquisite film is both a wonderful cinematic experience and a lesson on the dubious morality of loving money for its own sake, and placing wealth above family.
Balzac’s story of Felix Grandet (Olivier Gourmet), whose unscrupulous business dealings have amassed him a vast fortune – a fact known only to his lawyer – but lives in meagre lifestyle with his wife and daughter Eugenie (a luminous Josephine Japy) is possibly the most faultless film I have seen in a long time.
Carefully measured performances from the entire cast, directed with a lightness of touch by Dugain, draw us in to the world of this miser who spends the bare minimum on the necessities of life and dominates his family to the extent that what they know of the world is what they can see from the window of their house.
Eugenie is now 23, and has suitors from two good families. Felix will not countenance either of them though, not because he finds them unsuitable, but because he would have to provide his daughter with a dowry. Things start to change when his nephew, Charles, arrives unexpectedly from Paris and Eugenie feels the first stirrings of love.
Charles, however, is even less suitable. His father, Felix’s brother, has committed suicide, having descended into bankruptcy, leaving Charles with considerable debts. Felix sets him on a boat to the New World to seek his fortune or to die penniless, as fate decrees. The fact that he could have paid off his nephew’s debts without making much of a dent in his own savings concerns him not in the least.
But time passes, the world turns, seasons change. No-one lives forever, and Felix dies with his wealth intact. His fortune having brought no joy to his life or the lives of his family, Eugenie as his sole heir finds herself an extremely wealthy woman. A woman with the opportunity to taste freedom, to travel, and to dispense her wealth wisely and generously, all of which she does.
A tale that starts with an overbearing miser in an entirely male dominated society ends with an emancipated woman taking decisions for herself rather than bending to the wishes of the men around her is a story as much for today as for the time in which it was written.
And a film to watch again and again.