Movie Review: Death, longing and Don DeLillo — “Never Ever (À jamais)”

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“Never Ever (À jamais)” is a brief French drama, with lovely settings and beautiful actors. And it finishes with a fine twist.

But I’m not sure I can endorse the dull, internalized grief that comes before that finale. It’s a ghost story, of sorts, based on a Don DeLillo novella, “Body Artist.” And it left me cold.

Rey, played by Mathieu Amalric (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) is a dialed in French filmmaker whom we meet at a festival showing of his latest. He muse and star, Isabelle (Jeanne Balibar), is by his side.

But he loses her when they duck out after the screening begins. He wanders the arts center and happens upon a beautiful performance artist (Julia Roy, who also wrote the script) in a leotard, playing to a nearly empty house in an upstairs theater.

Rey stumbles across her changing backstage. Or does he? He’s devouring her with his eyes. He stalks her down the hall and out the door as she leaves.

And even though she’s half his age, she’s into that. Next thing we know, they’re riding up to his house in the country on his motorcycle.

It is an affair that begins with few words (in French with English subtitles.

“Do always drive so fast?”

Oui.

“Isn’t it dangerous?”

Oui.

“Live here alone?”

Oui.

Eventually, he gets her name. Rey and Laura are instantly inseparable, so much so that he dodges his muse’s many calls and obsesses on the new woman in his life.

He does that thing Liv Ullman used to joke about as the reason she left Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. Rey, like Bergman, insists on telling his lover his dreams.

Rey interrogates her after every solo outing she takes. Is he suspicious, asking her what she ate, who she ate with, what they talked about? Might Laura be cheating?

No. He’s mining her for material.

But the plans they’re making rattle him. His producer can’t advance him any cash, even though they want to marry. And Isabelle, when she gets the news, eviscerates him with a smile.

“Does she want a child? She is young. She’ll want one…And she’ll leave you one day. Anyone would run away.”

Rey’s ensuing fatal motorcycle accident comes as no shock. Stress and recklessness are deadly on a bike.

Laura stays behind in the house that wasn’t Rey’s, dodging creditors, old friends and everyone. She has a curious way of grieving. She’s taken the noises she’s always heard in the walls as proof of Rey’s “presence.” She dozes off in front of her laptop, which plays and replays the CCTV highway footage of just after the accident, as if she’s looking for a spirit to leave the tunnel where Ree crashed.

She starts seeing Rey, and then talking with him.

I’m not entirely sure of what DeLillo was getting at with this story, but my take-away was the way artists use each other, absorb each other in their work. Laura is subsumed by the more successful Rey, even after death, listening to his tape-dictated script notes, his messages to her — repeating old conversations in his words and in his voice.

Her outward signs of grief mirror the way he expressed his curiosity about her life without him around.

What’d Nora Ephron’s writer-parents teach her?

“Everything is copy.” Life moments, incidents, conversations and clever turns of phrase are all fair game to the creative.

Veteran French director Benoît Jacquot (“Farewell, My Queen”) makes every scene austere, stylish and lifeless. Generations of French filmmakers have filmed every at-home moment, every meal or conversation, in such chilly silence. Drives me nuts.

They’re too chic to ever play music, have a TV on or even leave something simmering on the stove as background noise. Rare is the French film that feels “lived in,” as a result.

Sorry, as much as I love the effortless elan of how every French character, male or female, wears a jacket, scarf or accessories in the movies, too many French films are self-consciously artsy in ways that underline the artifice.

Fans of the book may pull more from “Never Ever,” and the actors are easy on the eyes. But some of us “Never Ever,” or at least rarely, want to see screen stories as bloodless as this.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, nudity, sex

Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Julia Roy, Jeanne Balibar.

Credits: Directed by Benoît Jacquot, script by Julia Roy, based on the Don DeLillo novella. A Film Movement Plus (streaming) release.

Running time: 1:26

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