False Confessions is a capable rendering of a classic, but it lacks heart and is content to transfer the material from page to screen with little effort to make it engaging.
Prolific Swiss director Luc Bondy’s final film, False Confessions was made in tandem with his own staged production at the Théatre de l’Odeon. The film was shot during the day and the same cast performed the play on stage each evening over the course of a year long run. This arrangement makes Bondy’s framing of the play that much more impactful, blurring the lines of stage and screen in the final shot of the film. The Marivaux play is a three-act comedy about manipulation and deception, with the ultimate goal to make people unwittingly fall in love. It’s a classic trope from Shakespeare, Wilde and beyond. Here, it’s rendered in a modern day (albeit luxuriously rich) Parisian setting.
Isabelle Huppert has been working at a super-human pace in recent years, and each of her films shows the actress in such command of her craft. False Confessions offers her a brief respite of comedic acting with the role of Araminte, a wealthy widow pressured by her overbearing mother to marry the elderly Count Dorimont (Jean-Pierre Malo) rather than carry through on their land dispute.
Enter Dubois (Yves Jacques), Araminte’s manservant and former valet of Dorante (Louis Garrel), with a cunning plan to get the smitten – and financially destitute – Dorante under the employ of Araminte and make her fall in love with him. The first victim of their duplicitous plan is Araminte’s companion, Marton (Manon Combes). The hardliner Monsieur Rémy (Bernard Verley), Dorante’s uncle and Araminte’s lawyer, compels his nephew to marry Marton and be satisfied with status and economic comfort that will bring him, and his insistence gives Dorante and Dubois the perfect setup for a series of false confessions of love.
There’s more than a hint of The Importance of Being Earnest here, although Oscar Wilde’s play debuted in 1895 whereas False Confessionsdebuted in 1737. Manipulating people into smitten love is obviously a well-worn plot, and Marivaux’s play today seems not so much dated but predictable and at times tired. Such a big cast of characters keeps the lies and subsequent comedic situations flowing, and Bondy assembled a cast of esteemed stage and film actors.
The resulting film, however, is rather staid. Bringing the story into modern Paris certainly attempts to infuse new life into it, but that doesn’t change the period language or the requisitely stilted manners of a wealthy household replete with a defined upstairs and downstairs. The setting update serves little discernible purpose other than novelty, creating more or less a reenactment of the 18th century production in a confusingly devised multi-story Parisian flat. And, although this is more a flaw in the original play, the sheer number of players and their quick introductions, make it difficult to distinguish who is who and what role they play in this convoluted love quest, especially when we aren’t offered much in the way of character depth.
Bondy’s direction likely translated well to a stage production, but making such a performance more three-dimensional is a sticking point for many adaptations. A clear weak point in False Confessions is the production design. There are attempts here to expand beyond the sets and give the luxury flat a sense of place, but that devolves into poor green screen work and low budget tricks that fail to convince. As a side project of a long theater run that was intended as a TV film, False Confessions is a capable rendering of a classic, but it lacks heart and is content to transfer the material from page to screen with little effort to make it engaging.