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Great Huppert can't save flowery 'Promise'

You can currently see the great French actress Isabelle Huppert playing a shellshocked bourgeois housewife wandering through the apocalypse of Michael Haneke's "Time of the Wolf.'' In 2001, for the same director, she played a romantically obsessed musician in the harrowing "The Piano Teacher.''

Another film starring Huppert opens today at the Kendall: Olivier Dahan's "La Vie Promise,'' in which she's cast as a foulmouthed blond streetwalker who reconnects with her youthful dreams. Truly, there is nothing the woman can't do - except save "Promise'' from the valley of the shadow of bad French movie pretensions.

When the film opens, Sylvia (Huppert) is over the hill, working the curbsides of Nice, and burning with rage against the world. Don't know why; this is the kind of movie in which every shot is a candy bowl of luscious angles, and every hooker is a bodacious stunner. Sylvia has a daughter long given up to foster care who turns up out of nowhere: Laurence (Maud Forget, last seen kissing the boys and then some in "Bad Company'') is a 14-year-old runaway desperately seeking maternal love and getting only insults in return.

After an encounter with a pimp prompts Laurence to act like Cheryl Crane to his Johnny Stompanato (hint to the Hollywood-history impaired: T he reference involves Lana Turner's daughter, her goon boyfriend, and a kitchen knife), mother and child flee the city for the country.

They meet one of Sylvia's old working-girl buddies, now off the street, who gives over a stash of letters she's holding for her friend. Those letters give us further information about Sylvia's past and hold open the possibility of her redemption. But first she has to do time in existential road-movie hell.

All right, it's not that bad. Dahan and his cinematographer, Alex Lamarque, create a magic Impressionist landscape out of rural France for Sylvia and her daughter to separate and wander within. There are shots of the mother crossing fields and collapsing in byways that recall a coffee-table remake of Agnes Varda's 1985 classic "Vagabond.'' That film, though, had a realistic toughness, while "La Vie Promise'' forays further and further into strained cinematic poetry.

The flowers, for instance. The movie begins with a child's recitation of what the names of various flowers mean, and we come to learn that Sylvia was taught the old ways by her long-dead grandmother and that, indeed, she had hopes of becoming a florist.

This gives Dahan license to put flowers in the immediate foreground of his shots, where they dwarf the characters, and to indulge in blurry handheld triple exposures of plants, Sylvia, and her memories. Alt-country songs by the likes of Lucinda Williams and Shelby Lynne fill the soundtrack, as if the director expected the music to do the heavy lifting.

These stylistic shifts keep "La Vie Promise'' from settling into any one thing, and while Huppert's performance is fierce and committed, committed to what is impossible to say, since Dahan keeps everything at a dreamy remove.

About halfway through, another drifter appears on the scene, a car thief ex-convict named Joshua (Pascal Greggory) who is, bien sÂur, attractively silver-haired and pensive. He becomes a helpful angel to Sylvia and Laurence, and there's the suggestion that the three may yet become a random nuclear family, existing outside society, always on the run.

That's a good idea for a movie. But first someone needs to move the damn flowers out of the way.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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