The unimaginatively-titled “The Girl from Paris” (the French original, which translates as “One Swallow Brought Spring,” is much more evocative but would never have served for stateside release) is a simple tale of an unlikely friendship, but thanks to the gorgeous locales and exceptional lead performances, it has considerable charm.
The plot may remind American viewers of “The Egg and I” or “Green Acres,” but though there are touches of gentle humor here, the story is played quite straight. (There are no Ma and Pa Kettle on display, as in the Fred MacMurray-Claudette Colbert movie, and certainly no Arnold the Pig or Mr. Haney.) Sandrine (Mathilde Seigner), a dissatisfied computer worker, decides to abandon her city job and fulfill her dream of making a living in the country. Much to the consternation of her practical-minded mother, she goes to agricultural school and buys a remote goat farm in the French Alps from Adrien (Michel Serrault), a gruff, reclusive widower, under the condition that he be allowed to remain in the farmhouse for a year and a half until he can conveniently move. Adrien watches with incredulity, and considerable dismay, as the newcomer uses her internet savvy to transform the place into a tourist attraction while also working it as a farm; but despite her spring and summer success, he questions whether she’ll be able to make a go of it during the brutal winter season. Obviously more interested in helping her than he could ever admit, the old man uses rather cruel, underhanded means to coax her into asking for assistance, but in time they develop a grudging collaboration, and Adrien is crushed when his own infirmity threatens to intervene and Sandrine considers giving up. It’s also gradually revealed why the old man is so bitter and unfriendly.
This script by Christian Carion and Eric Assous is hardly very profound, and Carion’s direction is at best workmanlike. But “The Girl from Paris” is raised above the usual fare by the decision to shoot it in a truly lovely location over the course of nearly a full year, with a five-month break between the summer and winter scenes, and by the contribution of cinematographer Antoine Herberle, who captures the background beautifully, giving the film an almost tactile sense of place. But it’s the lead performances that make it truly special. Seigner is one of France’s most skilled young actresses, and she brings real gravity and purpose to Sandrine. Even more remarkable is Serrault, one of his country’s greatest treasures, whose simplicity and directness here are deeply moving. His is a performance one can’t help but connect with emotionally, a great turn by a great actor. Rotund Jean-Paul Roussillon adds to the mix with a jolly performance as Jean, Adrien’s only pal, whose new car is his pride and joy.
“The Girl from Paris” may not plumb dramatic depths, but the exceptional cast gives the simple story a gentle, natural feel that, like the seasons it records (and its mismatched couple), is by turn springlike and autumnal. This is one goat farm that’s definitely worth a visit.