Directed and co-written by Mariette Monpierre, Elza (also known as Le bounheur d’Elza) is notable for being the first narrative film by a female Guadeloupean director. The film is a semi-autobiographical independent drama about a young French woman and her search to find her estranged father in Guadaloupe. However, despite the promise of a highly personal, beautifully shot film about love and family, the film has all of the earmarks of a novice auteur; from pacing issues to an arc that never totally satisfies its audience, Elza is an unfortunate miss for the fledgling director.
Just before our screening, Dawn Fulton from Smith College in Northampton, MA, a professor who specializes in the study of French cinema and Caribbean studies, spoke to the audience. She talked about the challenges that directors, artists, and authors from the islands face in balancing the natural beauty of a place like Guadaloupe with the sometimes harsh realities of living there. She went on to state that Monpierre had somehow managed to successfully weave these two disparate elements together with Elza. Regrettably, I find myself disagreeing with this sentiment.
While the beauty of Guadaloupe itself is on resplendent display, Monpierre makes no effort to explore the deep-seated socioeconomic concerns of the Guadaloupeans. Too often characters mention these problems, like the unfortunate phenomenon of colorism, without actually investigating or making any arguments about them. This makes it difficult to connect with the issues on any sort of emotional or intellectual level, despite their importance to the inhabitants of the island.
Monpierre’s reluctance to make any social commentary is far less problematic than the story, however. The idea of a woman returning to her homeland to find her father sounds perfectly ripe for exploration, but Monpierre makes the strange decision to permeate the film with spots of hokey melodrama. In one particularly hammy scene, several members of the Désiré family (including Elza’s adulterous father and brother-in-law) are sitting in church. Like clockwork, the preacher launches into a heavy-handed sermon on the dangers and immorality of infidelity.
The lack of subtlety in this sequence is representative of the film itself. For example, many of these on-the-nose scenes are accentuated by a strangely-placed piano piece that seems like it would be much more at home in a daytime soap opera than a serious drama. These conceits culminate in the movie’s final moments, where Monpierre deviates from the real-world story to tell a schmaltzy, wish-fulfilling ending about her father that makes little sense in the context of the narrative.
Elza is not a total loss. As aforementioned, the scenery is bright and colorful (one of the biggest advantages of shooting on location) with an island-themed soundtrack to match, and the acting is almost completely sound. Specifically, Stana Roumillac does a good job portraying Elza’s emotional turmoil as the film comes to its conclusion. Eva Constant, playing Elza’s young niece Caroline, shows a lot of promise as an actress at just 10 years old. And, unsurprisingly, Monpierre did manage to accurately capture island life; from a drum dance session on the beach to intense games of dominoes, her Guadaloupean kin are given ample chance to show off the vibrant cultural aspects of the region.
It pains me to say that Elza was disappointing, because the film was certainly made in earnest. Perhaps it is Monpierre’s general lack of experience with narrative storytelling, her previous films having been documentaries, but the movie just doesn’t have that ring of truth or believability present in most autobiopics. The detrimental choices she made as a filmmaker and as a writer by overdramatizing her tale ended up doing her a disservice, giving the movie a distinctly made-for-television feel. Perhaps Monpierre will get it right next time, but for now I think I’ll stick with that other, much better movie that explored a father-daughter relationship with significantly more incisive language and emotional kick.
Verdict: Movie Meh