Have you ever had this experience while reading contemporary fiction? A series of characters and incidents are laid out in intimate, even claustrophobic, detail. Yet as rich as the material may seem, you’re never really allowed to savor it for its own dramatic sake. Even the most minute actions are fraught with significance and ”meaning,” as if the author were trying to tell a story and compose a college thesis at the same time.
I had some of this sensation while watching Olivier Olivier, the intriguing but strangely unsatisfying new movie from Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa). In the French countryside, Olivier, an angelic 9-year-old boy, is doted on in a nearly hysterical manner by his glittery-eyed, passionately unstable mother (Brigitte Roüan, who suggests a manic-depressive Susan Sarandon). She coddles him, helps him go to the bathroom, even invites him into bed at night, all to the consternation of his grumpy, hardheaded dad (François Cluzet). Then, one day, the boy simply disappears.
Six years later, a teenage homosexual hustler (Grégoire Colin) shows up at a Paris police station claiming to be Olivier. Instead of the lamb-sweet youth from before, we’re now confronted with a swarthy, cocky adolescent, all sprouting limbs and taunting hormonal leer. Yet his mother instantly accepts him, and the rest of the family goes along.
I’m not sure moviegoers will do the same. It’s obvious that Holland has concocted a story of intense theatrical possibility, a Return of Martin Guerre for the age of Freudian dysfunction. For the most part, though, she insists on treating Olivier’s disappearance and return as a kind of literary event. Neither the boy’s parents nor his older sister (Marina Golovine) — the only one who doesn’t believe him — pose so much as a single query about what he has been up to for the past six years; the fact that he seems like an entirely different person is simply shrugged off. Instead, Holland sets off tiny, muddled explosions of sensationalist drama: incest, Oedipal rivalry, a gonzo subplot involving telekinesis. As day-to-day behavior, the experience of this clan is so fanciful and obtuse that it ends up shutting us out. C