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TJFF 2012: ‘The Day I Saw Your Heart’ magically conciliates its flaws with French charm

The Day I Saw Your Heart

Written and directed by Jennifer Devoldère

France, 2011

In Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, Julie Delpy prophetically describes what it means to be French. Delpy’s Celine, while philosophizing with Ethan Hawke’s Jesse, says,

“Each time I wear black, or like, lose my temper, or say anything about anything, you know, they always go, “Oh it’s so French. It’s so cute”. Ugh! I hate that!”

The conceit of her outrage is that no matter what they do, or how they do it, French people have always been able to keep calm and carry on by virtue of being French. This axiom is vividly legitimized in Jennifer Devoldère’s dramatic comedy, The Day I Saw Your Heart, which, although wildly imperfect, magically conciliates its flaws with French charm.

The story follows the 27-year old eccentric, Justine (Mélanie Laurent), and her dysfunctional family, whose already fragile bond is tested when her 60-year old father (Michel Blanc) announces that his third wife is pregnant. This unexpected news, coupled with her emotionally vitiating childhood with her father, causes her to spiral into a cycle of self-doubt, which she can only escape from with the help of her family, friends, and newly discovered muse.

The Day I Saw Your Heart doesn’t have a narrative, per se. Instead, it has an ensemble of interesting characters, each with their own unique back-story and subplots. Essesntially, they’re a bunch of adults that haven’t grown up yet. The most engaging aspect of the film is realizing how each character has affected one another, and how it has put a strain on their relationships.

For example, Justine has always felt that her father has marginalized her existence. To compensate, she dates a slew of men that resemble him. In turn, her father becomes friends with them, taking them to play golf as a form of bonding. As a result, she becomes distant with her beaus, breaks up with them, and moves in with her sister.

There, she languishes in depression while working on her X-ray art. Her unkemptness puts additional anxiety on her sister, Florence, who’s trying to adopt a baby. Her original anxiety stems from her inability to naturally conceive and her father’s unnaturally impending offspring.

These circular connections go on ad infinitum, underscoring the convoluted and tangled nature of their family, and because the characters are all endearing in their own way, it’s very easy to care about them all.

However, the film’s shoddy writing and uneven focus undoes a lot of the story’s impact. Although the subplots are not many in number, only a select few are spotlighted (namely Justine and her father’s), leaving the rest to be largely unexplored.

Some character threads are overlooked and ignored for lengthy intervals, so much so that we often forget about them. When they are finally brought up again, they’ve become stale with age, making their lasting impact frustratingly ephemeral. This causes the film to be fractured and askew, which makes the narrative a bit of a chore to sit through.

The film can sometimes be pretentious in its craftsmanship, especially when it comes to the overbearing score. While trying to affect greater dimension and importance to the characters and their situations, the score will conspicuously introduce ostentatious music (often English-language), which can feel intrusive, out of place, and manipulating. This doesn’t occur often enough to be distracting, but it does occur often enough to be noticed.

Overall, the film has a lot of great ideas (such as Justine’s X-ray art as a metaphor for her emptiness and her father’s relationships with her exes as a proxy for one with her), but technical and creative missteps prevent it from being a great film. The ending wraps up too neatly, especially considering its muddled narrative, but it still retains a distinct French charm that gives The Day I Saw Your Heart a heartwarming conclusion.

From any other country, this film might not have worked, but because it’s French, it does. It’s clearly unfair, but, as Julie Delpy might say, c’est la vie.

– Justin Li

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