Catherine Ellsberg ’16
“With your kinky hair, you couldn’t possibly be my daughter,” a man says with vitriol to the estranged woman he deserted when she was still a child. The man’s back is turned to the luminous Elza, who repeats over and over, “Look at me … please look at me.” He refuses to turn around, and the void between the abandoned and the abandoner grows into a deepening pit as seconds turn into excruciating minutes.
It’s a remarkable scene, and only one of many in Mariette Monpierre ’85’s first full-length feature film, Elza. The autobiographical film charts a young woman’s journey from Paris to her native island of Guadeloupe on a quest to find the beloved father who somehow managed to walk away from her. With Stana Roumillac’s portrayal of the spunky Elza, we are offered a fleshed-out character of sparkling vivacity, intelligence and wit – a deserving recipient of the audience’s boundless empathy and affection.
When Elza arrives in Guadeloupe, a small island in the West Indies, she can hardly wait for her taxi to screech to a halt before she rambles out onto a beach, splashing and laughing. The camera trails Elza with a sensual gaze – following her as she lolls in the waves, pausing every few moments to take in a particular angle, a choice second of sun-speckled beauty. In this scene we get our first real taste of Monpierre’s use of slow motion, a tactic that will perhaps strike American audiences as soap-opera-like in nature.
The film continues with Elza’s search for her father, Mr. Désiré, whose promiscuity Monpierre pluckily catches on camera. In perhaps one of the more unbelievable elements of the story, Elza manages to weasel her way into his household by pretending she came from a babysitting agency to care for his grandchild.
However, certain holes are left unfilled surrounding this area of the plot; for one, it seems unlikely that Elza could keep up her ruse for too long without her father figuring out her true purpose. The little girl she is meant to care for, Caroline, is also portrayed as somewhat disturbed – conveyed by her staring blankly at a TV screen all day. Other than calling to mind Poltergeist, this detail is resolved all too quickly when Elza swoops in with pop music – an apparent cure-all to young Caroline’s malaise.
Music indeed plays a jarring role in Elza, as hardly a single scene goes by without the accompaniment of either a light flavor of pop or, even more prominently, the heavy use of piano cues. Combined with the deliberate use of slow-motion and a bright, high-contrast lighting, the music seems, at times, an unnecessary diversion to an otherwise promising plot.
Elza’s cinematic devices drive the film’s success, imbuing it with a sense of perseverance. As Spencer Adams, an audience member who attended the screening of the film, added, the film “addressed issues of race, class, and fatherhood … with a personal touch.”
After the screening, Monpierre described her film as a bit “American” in its fairytale quality and possessing the sort of resolved closure she wishes she could have had with her own estranged father. During the Q & A session, Monpierre encouraged anyone estranged from a parent to seek the parent out. She ascribed the trend of men abandoning their children in her native Guadeloupe to the consequences of slavery, and counted low self-esteem, teenage pregnancy and drugs as natural repercussions of such abandonment.
Elza is the first narrative film to be shot by a woman in Guadeloupe, an accomplishment which, as Monpierre acknowledges, seems to have naturally blossomed from her time in college.
“[Smith] gave me the opportunity to explore…it gave me guts,” she said. One can only hope that Elza is just one of a series of bold films to come from Monpierre.
Monpierre will be giving a talk this coming Friday, Feb. 15, at 7:30 p.m. in Seelye Hall 201.