First there was that disparate-age buddy movie, "Monsieur Ibrahim", in which an
older man and a boy pair up. Now, before "Ibrahim" is out of theatres comes
another in the bonding genre. It's still a matter of a wide gap in ages but
this one deals with an older man and an 8 year old girl. The matchup in the
former was made possible by a plot point that removed the young boy's real
father from the scenario -- in The Butterfly it's a never-home mother that
makes the attention-starved child force herself on the old man downstairs.
The problem for distinguished actor Michel Serrault ("Les Diaboliques," 1954)
is in withholding his adoration of co-star cutie Claire Bouanich (as Elsa, in
her screen debut) long enough to portray ornery neighbor Julien, a
self-contained entomologist who is too absorbed in his butterfly collection
to welcome a child's attentions. Pretending to see her as an
over-inquisitive annoyance demanded professional distance in order to allow
the dramatic design to ensnare him (and us) into her magnetic little net.
Julien's grumpy good nature is indicated by how he puts aside the fact that
the little girl upstairs has a habit of bouncing her ball on the floor in the
middle of the night and awakening him from a sound sleep. When he spots her
killing time in a cafe' because she doesn't have the key to her apartment, he
invites the lonely tyke in to his -- for a spot of orange juice and to
introduce her to the marvels of his collection. He soon learns that she's on
her own so much because her lamebrained mother Isabelle (Nade Dieu), a nurse,
spends little time at home or, even, in communication with her daughter -- a
near incredible concept but necessary to the writer's plotline. Small wonder
that Elsa can be disobedient even while being treated to Julien's hospitality.
But, the girl's need for parental attention and her growing attachment to the
new grandfather figure in her life becomes evident when she stows herself in
his car in order to join him on his 8 day field trip to the mountains. Elsa
employs her precocious sense of what she needs to say and do to convince
Julien that her mother won't miss her and her presence won't be a bother.
She gets him pegged right. After much protestation, he reluctantly agrees to
perform a baby-sitting service for the irresponsible parent by allowing the
girl to tag along on his quest for the extremely rare Isabella butterfly. (A
too-obvious connection to the mother's name).
The trek starts with a cellphone breakdown, putting them out of touch with
the world as they pursue the elusive specimen. Disappointments and success
brings both mountaineers to an awareness of an emotional context for their
developing relationship. Their tie is put to the test when a distraught mama
reports her daughter missing, the police assume possible abduction, and a
near-tragedy requires a rescue operation. Writer-director Phillippe Muyl is
careful to avoid any shade of impropriety to enter the dialogue or action, a
necessity to bring us along sympathetically but one which also tends toward
mushy idealization. It's more fare for the PG-13 crowd than mature
audiences. Or so it would seem.
For this mature movie-goer, there are three payoffs in the Disneyish
adventure. First is in the gifts that Ms. Bouanich brings to the screen --
she drags me willingly into the spell of her disarming intelligence, plucky
spirit and an affecting natural talent. Second is in the ability of Serrault
to play off her intrusive and somewhat controlling nature with well nuanced
tones of impatience, guidance and concern. Last is the balance that Muyl
brings to his dialogue and situation, buoying his material with humor and
poignancy above the level of sentiment while also steering us away from any
morality question that could arise from the circumstances.
So, from the camp of the mature with a macho taste for the gutsy, I submitted
to this little romp on the tender side. Apparently, I can appreciate a good
natured movie in which a sweet attachment and fluttering butterflies pervade
~~ Jules Brenner