The Butterfly (2002)

"Very Good"

The Butterfly (2002) Review


First there was that disparate-age buddy movie, Monsieur Ibrahim, in which an older man and a boy pair up. Now, before Ibrahim is out of theatres comes another in the bonding genre. It's still a matter of a wide gap in ages but this one deals with an older man and an 8 year old girl. The matchup in the former was made possible by a plot point that removed the young boy's real father from the scenario -- in The Butterfly it's a never-home mother that makes the attention-starved child force herself on the old man downstairs.

The problem for distinguished actor Michel Serrault (Les Diaboliques, 1954) is in withholding his adoration of co-star cutie Claire Bouanich (as Elsa, in her screen debut) long enough to portray ornery neighbor Julien, a self-contained entomologist who is too absorbed in his butterfly collection to welcome a child's attentions. Pretending to see her as an over-inquisitive annoyance demanded professional distance in order to allow the dramatic design to ensnare him (and us) into her magnetic little net.

Julien's grumpy good nature is indicated by how he puts aside the fact that the little girl upstairs has a habit of bouncing her ball on the floor in the middle of the night and awakening him from a sound sleep. When he spots her killing time in a café because she doesn't have the key to her apartment, he invites the lonely tyke in to his -- for a spot of orange juice and to introduce her to the marvels of his collection. He soon learns that she's on her own so much because her mother Isabelle (Nade Dieu), a nurse, spends little time at home or, even, in communication with her daughter. He also learns that Elsa can be disobedient even while he's treating her to his hospitality.

But, the girl's need for parental attention and her growing attachment to the new grandfather figure in her life becomes evident when she stows herself in his car in order to join him on his 8 day field trip to the mountains. Elsa employs her precocious sense of what she needs to say and do to convince Julien that her mother won't miss her and her presence won't be a bother. She gets him pegged right. After much protestation, he reluctantly agrees to perform a baby-sitting service for the irresponsible parent by allowing the girl to tag along on his quest for the extremely rare Isabella butterfly. (A too-obvious connection to the mother's name).

The trek starts with a cellphone breakdown, putting them out of touch with the world as they pursue the elusive specimen. Disappointments and success brings both mountaineers to an awareness of an emotional context for their developing relationship. Their tie is put to the test when a distraught mama reports her daughter missing, the police assume possible abduction, and a near-tragedy requires a rescue operation. Writer-director Phillippe Muyl is careful to avoid any shade of impropriety to enter the dialogue or action, a necessity to bring us along sympathetically but one which also tends toward mushy idealization. It's more fare for the PG-13 crowd than mature audiences. Or so it would seem.

For this mature moviegoer, there are three payoffs in the Disneyish adventure. First is in the gifts that Ms. Bouanich brings to the screen -- she drags me willingly into the spell of her disarming intelligence, plucky spirit and an affecting natural talent. Second is in the ability of Serrault to play off her intrusive and somewhat controlling nature with well nuanced tones of impatience, guidance and concern. Last is the balance that Muyl brings to his dialogue and situation, buoying his material with humor and poignancy above the level of sentiment while also steering us away from any morality question that could arise from the circumstances.

So, from the camp of the mature with a macho taste for the gutsy, I submitted to this little romp on the tender side. Apparently, I can appreciate a good natured movie in which a sweet attachment and fluttering butterflies pervade the landscape.

Aka Le Papillon.

Let the dissection begin.



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