Writer-director Jerome Bonnell has made, in Le Chignon d’Olga, a very good first feature film, if rather misleadingly titled. Its story centres around Julien (Hubert Benhamdine), a young musician with a crush on Olga (Delphine Rollin), the bookshop worker with the hair in a bun. But this is not a light-hearted romcom in which he pursues the object of his affection, nor is it an intense portrait of obsession. It’s actually a depiction of a family in the aftermath of bereavement: the mother has died a year before, and while Julien, his sister Emma (Florence Loiret) and their father (Serge Riaboukine) are superficially communicative and courteous, underneath they are all disaffected and suffering in their own ways.
Julien sets out to pursue Olga, but only from afar. He has a far more fruitful relationship with his older female friend, Alice (Nathalie Boutefeu) – notably in an excellent party sequence. Emma, meanwhile, is charmed by a young woman, but she is unsure whether or not she should reciprocate. The father is involved with a friend’s wife. To say that it’s like a Rohmer movie is perhaps an over-easy observation to make. But it does give some sense of this film’s fidelity to a form of naturalism. The look, the framing and the sound are all at the service of the characters and the story, nothing more or less. As with Rohmer, Bonnell’s drama is expressed through small, everyday details. Bonnell’s visual style – although convincingly pared down – has a poetry of its own; witness the rapturous shot of a car driving into the distance, held until it disappears from view.
With this approach, the humdrum must be kept at bay, and Le Chignon d’Olga does at times come close to being commonplace in theme and style. The actors are all good, but the characters are actually left quite underdeveloped – or maybe it’s just that the story is small and gentle and we are more attuned to larger character arcs. However you view it, the pacing tends towards the ponderous; sometimes shots threaten to hang around and not move on, as in an early sequence in the film, for example, where Julien runs through a field to let off some steam, filmed in a long-held static shot which isn’t really merited by the action.
At times this film is reminiscent of another altogether impressive debut film by a French director, Damien Odoul’s Le Souffle (2001). In both movies, the camera is used as a window onto the natural world, finding significance in an accumulation of seemingly banal moments. These directors still have a way to go before they invest their images with the hypnotic resonance of, say, Antonioni at his best, but both Odoul and Bonnell display rare sensitivity and tenderness for their characters.
In the case of Bonnell, this has produced a rather original take on familial grief, and although the conclusion is not truly earned – it feels convenient and lazy and rather undercuts the subtlety of what has come before – Le Chignon d’Olga is consistently calming and well-observed.