Isabelle Huppert enjoyed her decade as “French Screen Siren of the Moment” in the years between Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche.
A formidable dramatic actress, the definitive “Madame Bovary,” she was Oscar-nominated for “Elle,” should have been nominated for “Bovary” and “The Piano Teacher,” she’s been a brooding, thoughtful and sexy presence in films on both sides of the Atlantic, from “Heaven’s Gate” and “Entre Nous” to “I Heart Huckabees” and “Amour.”
But it’s her indifferent singing voice that stands front and center of “Souvenir,” a reminder that she’s starred in musicals (“8 Women”) and been called on to sultry chanteuse her way through a tune half a dozen times on the big screen.
“Souvenir” sees her not-quite-perfectly-cast as a one-almost-hit wonder, “like ABBA, but not so famous,” a performer who lost something like the Eurovision Song Contest (not called that here), which launched ABBA’s career in the same era.
Back then, she was Laura,” blonde, sexy chic and omnipresent. Now, as she smokes and drinks alone in her tiny apartment, she can see herself as a trivia question on TV game shows, hearing that she “sank into oblivion,” as if she didn’t know that.
These days, in her 60s, she is a garnisher — putting bay leaves and dried cranberries on the top of every one-kilo tub of paté that crosses her work station. She goes by her non-stage name, Liliane. And when her co-worker in the factory, an aspiring boxer named Jean Leloup (Kévin Azaïs) recognizes her, she denies her true identity.
But he persists, unintentionally wounding her with (in French, with English subtitles) “My dad thinks you’re great!” and other backhanded references to her age and her has-been status.
The best he can get is “I don’t sing anymore,” and “I’d rather not talk about it.”
So begins an awkward and unlikely affair. His parents don’t understand what he does “with her” and what they talk about. “Plenty,” he says.
“I’m done,” she says, of her career, her life, the works.
“No, you’re not.”
“You’re a nice boy,” she says, letting him down gently.
“No, I’m not.”
Bavo Defurne’s star vehicle for Huppert plays out in utterly conventional May-November romance ways, with a shot at a “comeback,” renewed interest from an ex-husband/manager (Johan Leysen) and the age gap blowing up in the most predictable ways.
But the leaps we’re asked to make as a viewer hamstring even these tried and true story beats. As absurd as it is to think of a one-time “star” entertainer and great beauty ending up on a liver-spread production line, that’s not as hard to swallow as Huppert’s silky, stiff (by design) stage performances.
It’s an uncertain, undistinguished voice, and the ballads she sings aren’t so much torch songs as failing flicks of a cigarette lighter. It’s Lilianne’s previous career that cannot be sold, here. The title tune doesn’t do her any favors, but it falls on the performer to put it over. Huppert cannot summon up Kim Carnes, Alicia Bridges or Debby Boone.
The love story we can buy into, because, as the aged orange sportscaster Tony Kornheiser likes to put it, Huppert at 65 is “still getting it done.” She’s a magnetic presence in any film.
But too much of this one is trite, tried and true. And the tunes? Not tone-deaf, but close.
MPAA Rating: unrated, sex scenes, sexuality, boxing
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Kévin Azaïs, Johan Leysen
Credits:Directed by Bavo Defurne, script byBvo Defurne, Jacques Boon, Yves Verbraeken. A Strand release.
Running time: 1:30