Sunday 5 December 2010

Review: Making Plans For Lena (2009)

With Dans Paris (2006) and the musical Les Chansons d’Amour (2007) the prolific writer/director Christophe Honoré produced two of the freshest, most delightful French movies of the 00s. Honoré’s last film, La Belle Personne (2008), an adaptation of a Madame de Lafayette novel relocated to a contemporary Parisian high school, also had its splendours, but sadly the movie never received UK distribution. Despite success at a number of film festivals, it looks like a similar fate might befall Honoré’s latest work, Making Plans for Léna (2009), which is a genuine shame. I was grateful to have the chance to see the film at the Cine Lumiere last week during the French Film Festival, and found it to be a beautiful work, a wry and empathetic movie that fits snugly into the contemporary canon of intimate yet epically-inclined French family dramas, from Patrice Chereau’s Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (1998) to Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (2008).

The Léna of the title (Chiara Mastroianni) is an unemployed 30-something mother of two, who’s in the process of separating from her husband Nigel (Jean-Marc Barr). The film opens with Léna and her kids, Anton and Augustine, travelling to her parents home in Brittany to spend the holidays with her sister Frédérique (Marina Foïs) and brother Gulven (Julien Honoré) while her mother and father (Marie-Christine Barrault and Fred Ulysse) go on vacation to Rome. Once there, Léna discovers that her parents have invited Nigel along too, a decision that immediately brings Léna into conflict with her family, all of whom seem to think that they can organise her life better than she can.

These conflicts are developed in subtle and consistently surprising ways throughout the film. Honoré is too shrewd and smart about people to simply pit a saintly single mother against a family of awful meddlers - or indeed to pit a saintly family against a hapless single mother. (Take note, Mike Leigh.) Indeed, what’s so compelling about Making Plans for Léna (the apt English title comes from the XTC song “Making Plans For Nigel,” which Barr's character plays for the couple’s kids early in the film) is its complexity of perspective, and the way in which it gradually unpicks the protagonists’ relationships, revealing tensions and alliances, loyalties and betrayals, in the most unexpected of places. The characters, from the youngest to the oldest, are drawn with tremendous skill, and are beautifully portrayed by a cast that includes several Honoré regulars alongside new collaborators.

Following her lovely supporting performance in Les Chansons … and memorable cameo in La Belle Personne, it’s great to see Mastroianni in a lead role, and she gives a vibrant performance that perfectly conveys both Léna’s wilfulness and her uncertainty about her desires. Even when Léna is behaving at her most erratically, Mastroianni keeps us with her every step of the way, creating a wonderfully original, yet thoroughly recognisable, modern screen heroine. The actress gets plenty to bounce off from all the cast, in particular Foïs (a saving grace in Antony Cordier's awful Happy Few [2010]), who gives a marvellously tart performance as the touchy, unhappily pregnant Frédérique. Marie-Christine Barrault is superb as Léna’s mother Annie, while the performances of the child actors, Donatien Suner and Lou Pasquerault, who play her kids are also standouts. Fans of Honoré’s male-muse Louis Garrel might be disappointed to find him relegated to a supporting role here, but, as Léna’s suitor, he has a couple of the film’s best scenes.

Formally, Honoré takes a relatively straightforward approach, but there’s space for idiosyncrasy too. The film digresses when it feels so inclined, as characters tell each other stories or recall their shared past; these sequences bring substance and texture to the drama. The film moves through contrasting moods very quickly and scenes start and conclude at unexpected moments keeping the viewer alert and off-balance. This stylistic quirk suits the characters, a brilliantly inconsistent, confounding bunch who seldom do - or say - the expected thing. (The dialogue throughout is wonderfully frank; I particularly liked Léna’s put-down to her brother-in-law as he whinges about his marital problems: “I don’t need you confiding in me.”) There’s also some casual to-camera address, and, most surprisingly, the insertion of an elaborately enacted Bretagne folk-tale that comments on our heroine’s predicament midway through the film. And in a breathtakingly lyrical section - perhaps my favourite sequence, in fact - Annie sits alone in a church in Rome, her past flashing before our eyes as a selection of still photographic images. These flourishes are combined with great naturalism and a sure feeling for the rhythms of everyday life; among his other skills, Honoré is really a whiz at making domestic detail interesting and dramatically revealing.

Honoré is content to leave several plot strands dangling, and he certainly doesn’t resolve things as one may have hoped; in fact, the movie feels no more “resolved” than daily existence itself. But detail after detail rings true here, and, at its best, Léna creates a wonderfully inclusive, liberating atmosphere for the viewer. The director succeeds in getting life’s messy emotional conundrums on screen with honesty and insight in this thoroughly enjoyable and subtly challenging film.



  1. I haven't seen this film, but the title Making Plans for Léna reminds me of a song I love and shared on my blog: Making Plans for Nigel. by the cover band Nouvelle Vague.

    Talking of French cinema, have you seen Tell no one(2006) ? That's probably my favourite film from that country, directed by Guillaume Canet. Recommended ( :

  2. Yep, Tell No One is enjoyable.

    "Making Plans For Nigel" is featured in the film; the XTC version. I heartily recommend Honore's other films, especially Dans Paris and Les Chansons d'Amour, if you haven't seen them.

  3. Haven't seen Honore's films, will check the trailers to see if they are my cup of tea, thanks.

    By the way, since you also blog about music. I am calling for my "readers" this week to name some of their top albums of 2010, maybe you have a couple of aces up your sleeve I might like?

    (You can see what my taste in music is on my blogger profile)