Building on the foundation of her debut, The Dancer, a decorative biopic of Folies Bergere alumnus and fin de siècle bohemian Loie Fuller, French director Stephanie di Giusto returns to the 19th century with Rosalie, another feminism-informed story about a sensuous, unusual woman ahead of her time.
However, the subject here is not a specific historical personage, but a composite of various people from the time who all have the same condition as the eponymous heroine: a tendency to grow hair all over her body, or hirsutism, the condition that creates so-called “bearded ladies.” Both a matter-of-fact speculation on how a husband and a small town would react to someone like this in their midst (spoiler alert: not great, at least at first), and a barely disguised parable about intolerance, Rosalie offers a very watchable, offbeat slice of period drama. The writing gets a bit melodramatic and clunky in the last act, but thanks to the charismatic lead performances from Nadia Tereszkiewicz as Rosalie and Benoît Magimel as her husband, Abel, this is eminently exportable — except perhaps to red states that can’t cope with anything that smells even vaguely of drag.
The Bottom Line
Love triumphs over a hairy situation.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Cast: Nadia Tereszkiewicz, Benoit Magimel, Benjamin Biolay, Guillaume Gouix, Gustave Kevern, Anna Biolay, Eugene Marcuse, Juliette Armanet
Director: Stephanie di Giusto
Screenwriters: Stéphanie di Giusto, Sandrine le Coustumer, based on a treatment by Sandrine le Coustumer, Alexandra Echkenazi
1 hour 51 minutes
The time is the 1870s, and the place a once rural part of Northern France where the local peasants now work in a factory making something unspecified rather than in the fields. Abel (Magimel, The Piano Teacher) is a former soldier in his forties who suffers with old back injuries and is in debt to the local factory owner, Barcelin (Benjamin Biolay). He agrees to marry Rosalie (Tereszkiewicz, Forever Young) — who in her twenties is practically over the hill on the marriage market — because she comes with a dowry from her father, Paul (Gustave Kervern), that will help him settle some of those debts. Plus, she can help Abel out at the café he runs in town, which is struggling to attract customers thanks to the promotion of temperance from the local clergy and Barcelin, who doesn’t want his workers slacking off.
At first, Abel is quite pleased with his new bride, who, although a bit shy, is nevertheless a beauty with her sleepy bedroom eyes and fresh-milk complexion. She also happens to be handy with a needle and makes her own dresses. (Madeline Fontaine’s costume designs are lusciously detailed across the board.) Their first night as a married couple, however, does not go well when Abel discovers the hair covering her chest and back. The hair growing on her face she has managed to keep under control with her father’s help on razor duty, but in an age before epilators and depilatory cream she’s rather healthily learned to just live with it and hopes Abel can too. Sadly, he is repulsed at first and the marriage remains unconsummated until later in the film.
Nevertheless, Rosalie’s sunny attitude and attractive presence draws in customers, and one day she makes a wager with another customer to see who can grow a better beard. Abel is of course grumpy and furious, but Rosalie argues that her beard could pull in visitors, like a circus act. Indeed, that’s exactly how it plays out and before long, the locals are all charmed by Rosalie, who maintains a very feminine demeanor despite her lush, strawberry-blonde whiskers.
Of course, di Giusto and her screenwriting collaborators Sandrine le Coustumer and Alexandra Echkenazi can’t just let this happy situation go on if there is to be any drama. So a number of breaks and impediments to Rosalie and Abel’s happiness must be introduced. There’s plotting on Barcelin’s part to get her ostracized by the community (who are rather patronizingly depicted as spineless sheep who change their minds about Rosalie under the slightest of pressures).
Later, our otherwise admirable heroine makes a very serious error of judgment — one that is completely uncharacteristic for a petit bourgeois woman of her time — when she agrees to have a photographer friend take photographs of her semi-naked, which of course start circulating in the community immediately. Presumably, the film wants us to applaud Rosalie’s hair-positive self-acceptance and bravery about displaying herself as a sexual being on her own terms, which is all very right-on these days. But in the 1870s, it’s a practically suicidal decision, and some viewers like myself may find themselves losing sympathy after the protagonist makes this very unwise move that puts everything she’s worked for in jeopardy.
Rest assured that, despite all logic, things work out well for Rosalie and Abel, like lovers in an upbeat romance novel. Indeed, despite all the kerfuffle over social mores and self-acceptance, this is very much a love story aimed at women viewers and fellow travelers, complete with candle-lit love scenes and all the pretty lacy trappings.