15 June 2005 | debblyst
Sensitive, intelligent homage to Stefan Zweig
"24 Hours of a Woman's Life" (2003) is the sixth film version of the famous novella by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (1881-1942). In the book, a certain Mrs. C., a 67 year-old upper-class English widow, befriends a male stranger (the narrator) in a hotel at the Côte d'Azur and tells him about her long kept secret: an eventful day in her life, 25 years before, when she met a young Polish army officer and compulsive gambler half her age, saved his life, fell madly in love and was finally let down by him -- all in the course of 24 hours, dramatically changing her life forever.
While the book deals with a single narrative -- the confession of Mrs C. -- the film adds complexity and new characters to the original story. In the film, we deal with three interwoven narratives, all taking place at the Côte d'Azur but in different periods: a) 1910s: the tragic love story between Mrs C. (now renamed Mrs. Collins-Brown, played by Agnès Jaoui) and the young Polish gambler Anton (Nikolaj Coaster-Waldau); b) 1936: Mrs. Collins-Brown's account of those events in an attempt to comfort teenage Louis (Clément van der Bergh), whose mother has just eloped with a tennis instructor she had met only the day before; c) 2001: Louis (Michel Serrault) is now a lonely, depressed bachelor and retired diplomat. He returns to the Côte d'Azur of his youth and accidentally meets desperate young Olivia (Bérénice Béjo), who's running away from her abusive, violent boyfriend. At first unwilling to help her but eventually identifying with her loneliness and despair, old Louis takes her to his hotel room and tells her the story he once heard from the English lady in 1936 -- and that same story will have a life-changing effect on THEIR own lives.
Zweig, though not in the same literary "league" as his friends and contemporaries Thomas Mann, Rilke and Joyce, was nevertheless highly thought of and successful in the Europe of the 1920s and 1930s. Many international films have been based on his oeuvre since the 1920s, such as the classic "Letter from an Unknown Woman" by Max Ophüls with Joan Fontaine (1948), filmed at least another 5 times; "Confusion des Sentiments", a study in closeted homosexuality considered by some some scholars to be secretly autobiographical, directed by Étienne Périer with Michel Piccoli (1979); "Fear" by Rossellini with Ingrid Bergman (1954); the promising but ultimately disappointing "The Burning Secret" by Andrew Birkin with K.M.Brandauer and Faye Dunaway (1988), and many others. His stories, usually dealing with burning (and mostly illicit) passions that defy conventions and eventually lead to catharsis or tragedy, were greatly admired by Freud, who considered "24 Hours..." a masterpiece, "comparable to the best of Dostoevsky" (not quite, though the nature of the material had an obvious appeal for psychoanalytic theorization). Zweig shared Virginia Woolf's interest in the shattering consequences of sexual and emotional repression (especially for women) in re-shaped and traumatized Europe between the great world wars, though their literary styles were totally distinct.
Director/co-screenwriter Laurent Bouhnik's decision to add a new contemporary episode with new characters is far from a "betrayal" or "heresy" on Zweig: on the contrary, it's an intelligent tribute to Zweig's literature, as it brings a welcome modern complexity to the story (it may sound complicated but is visually very clear, when you add costumes, make-up and different sets). Zweig's novella is not only about a Belle Époque lady who breaks free from social conventions plunging into emotional and sexual self-awareness -- it's also about the cathartic power of sharing life experiences with other people, about the search for emotional truth, about how unexpected events can change our lives overnight and forever.
"24 Heures..." has fine production values, with beautiful locations in Cologne and the Côte d'Azur, lush costumes (the green dress Jaoui wears at the casino is a knockout!) and effective music by Michael Nyman. The production design defines the three periods very clearly, as the 1910s are all art-nouveau, the 1930s art-déco, and the 2000s icily "post-modern".
Michel Serrault slowly unfolds the complexity of the old Louis with his consummate expertise. Agnès Joui -- though miscast, as she is is too young for her role and the few scenes in English betray her thick accent -- is an actress/writer herself, and thus has full understanding of her role; furthermore her "unglamorous" looks make her Mrs C. more realistic than earlier versions with goddess-like divas Merle Oberon, Ingrid Bergman and Danielle Darrieux. Young Clément van der Bergh ("La Ville don't le Prince est unEnfant" and "La Classe de Neige") is once again very appealing in his melancholy good looks. Danish actor Nikolaj Koster-Waldau is at once seductive, menacing and frail in the relatively short but pivotal role of gambler/officer Anton.
"24 Hours..." is an intelligently updated homage to Zweig, the great humanist Jewish writer who fled from Nazi Germany and wandered throughout Europe in the early 1930s looking for a safe haven, finally settling in Brazil in 1941. During the Carnival of 1942, deeply depressed due to his belief that Hitler would ultimately win the war and having a hard time adapting in a totally different language and culture, Zweig and his wife Lotte committed double suicide by taking pills and poison in Petrópolis (a city near Rio de Janeiro), leaving a note stating he was "too old to start anew" and wishing his friends "good luck" while they waited for "the sun to finally rise after these darkest of times".
P.S.: If you're interested in Zweig, try to find Sylvio Back's Brazilian documentary "Zweig: A Morte em Cena" (1995)(q.v.) and fiction film "Lost Zweig" (2002, released in 2007) about Zweig's final days, although these are hard finds EVEN if you live in Brazil.