La Vie Promise Review

A prostitute working on the streets of Nice, Sylvia (Isabelle Huppert) has a lot of problems and is hardly the model of a good mother. Her profession certainly leaves her with no time to bring up her fourteen year-old daughter Laurence (Maud Forget), who has been left to grow up in foster homes, and the relationship between mother and daughter is consequently not exactly ideal. Nonetheless, when Laurence becomes involved in a dispute between Sylvia and her pimp and accidentally kills the man, they are forced to make their escape from the city and try to get on together.

With no-one else to turn to, Sylvia attempts to get in contact with her former husband Piotr, despite having run out on him and her young son, now eight years old, a long time ago. With a resentful daughter in tow, suffering from epileptic fits and a few upsets, disputes and break-ups along the way, the journey to a half-forgotten destination is a long and difficult one, but with the assistance of a man they meet, a runaway convict Joshua (Pascal Greggory), they finally reach a destination that may not have been the one they originally set off on.

The reason for Sylvia’s failure to make a life with her husband and child and her return to working on the streets as a prostitute is never made clear – the whole episode even appearing to be like a black hole in the mind of Sylvia - but we can probably assume a mental breakdown and, possibly, a dependency on an old drug habit that had resurfaced. The problem is however that La Vie Promise (The Promised Life) is filled with rather too many probablys and possiblys, and the characters largely remain unfathomable and unconvincing. It’s only a fine performance from Isabelle Huppert that allows these blanks that exist in an underwritten role to at least seem mysterious and intriguing. The actress is fabulous here, bringing an air of vulnerability and sensitivity to Sylvia that the film fails to support or establish elsewhere and Dahan makes the most of her ability by filming a large part of the film with Huppert in close-up.

In the absence of strong or original characterisation, the director – a former director of music promo videos - substitutes colour and music. The film is consequently awash with orange and blue night-time tones and glowing with a gorgeous golden hue across the landscapes of the Provence and Rhône-Alpes regions, but it’s overly prettified in a kitsch airbrushed manner. The superficiality of the treatment is even more evident with the use of music and songs, the film often looking like it is a patched together sequence of pop promo videos. None of these techniques manage to establish any kind of relationship with the emotional interiority of the characters, and if the film does manage to achieve a small sense of poignancy by the time we reach the end credits, it’s almost entirely due to the presence of Isabelle Huppert.

La Vie Promise is released in the USA by Empire Pictures. The DVD is in NTSC format and is encoded for Region 1.

I was somewhat disappointed by the transfer here, particularly as it has already been highly praised by some other review sites, none of whom mentioned that the 2.35:1 image is presented non-anamorphically and is moreover converted to NTSC from a PAL source. The loss of resolution in letterboxing a film of this ratio is not exactly negligible, but the flaws are compounded here with the standards conversion. Colours are reasonably strong, but in an overall soft transfer, they are poorly defined and even fuzzy. Dahan’s strange decision to film a number of sequences in simulated shaky handheld doesn’t help matters with the soft interlaced images often consequently looking rather blurred. Blacks are flat and rather murky, particularly with interior shots – the image being far to dark and overly-contrasted - though exteriors fare rather better. Compression artefacts are also evident with the image flickering lightly throughout and edge-enhancement is very pronounced. There are however no marks on the print which, if other reviews are to be believed and you are not particularly fastidious about video transfers, does at least look superficially pleasing to the eye.

Much the same could be said for the audio track, which is clear throughout and certainly more than adequate as far as a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix goes, but it is certainly far below the quality that the film ought to be able to achieve with its original surround mix, available on the French edition as Dolby Digital 5.1.

Inevitably, the English subtitles are fixed to the image and lie entirely within the black border outside the frame, meaning that the letterboxed picture cannot even be zoomed to widescreen. It’s of little consequence, since the flaws in the low resolution transfer would certainly not stand up to magnification. The subtitles at least are in a white font, and translate the film well.

The only extra features included here are Trailers for the Empire Collection releases of La Vie Promise, September 11th and Twilight Samurai.

Olivier Dahan can certainly make the French countryside look extremely attractive on La Vie Promise’s road-movie journey that takes a mother and her daughter on this emotionally turbulent journey across the south of France, but even with the casting of Isabelle Huppert to give the story added emotional depth, the promo-video stylisations fail to take the place of convincing characterisation and the proper story development and the film, while looking fabulous, unfortunately lacks any real depth or heart. The Region 1 DVD from Empire Pictures also has some fundamental flaws, with its letterboxed, PAL to NTSC standards converted transfer.

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