Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Frank Review of "Happenstance" (Le Battement D'ailes du Papillon, 2001)

The Short Version? The Butterfly Effects.
What Is It? Foreign Comedy.
Who's In It? Audrey Tautou.
Should I See It? Yes.

In reading other reviews for the French film Le Battement D'ailes du Papillon ("The Beating of the Butterfly's Wing,") I've seen a lot of mention of chaos theory and consideration of whether or not it qualifies as a romantic comedy. I think some folks may have missed the point. Let me explain.

Irène (Tautou) is a depressed shop girl who is assigned a fate while riding on the subway one morning. Seeing as Irène, despite reservations, passively allows life to wash over her, destiny is likely to play out as planned. From there, the movie pulls back to gaze at dozens of lives at varying degrees of separation from Irène's. It isn't that the movie is about Irène (Tautou appears in a fraction of the film's 90 minutes,) it merely begins with her, and uses her as a sort of control. Everyone else in the movie is going on with their lives; the negligible acts of one person having massive impact on the life of another. However, these acts are not truly random, but part of a grand scheme, likely authored by divine hands (and specifically, a mysterious figure who appears twice on screen.)

Of even greater consideration is a speech given by a coffee house keeper, who subscribes to the very western conception of "instant karma." Basically, what you put out into the world, negative or positive, revisits you. Embodying loving kindness doesn't make your world one filled with incense and butterflies-- a little rain must fall-- but each person either makes an effort to consider others and preserve themselves, or else suffer cosmic judgments. "Happenstance" is not just about recognizing that life is both completely random and outside your control, but also redirected by every minute stimulus to an ultimately deliberate effect. The matter is left somewhat up to the viewer to decide, and yet not-- a contrary beast.

So by that standard, you can't really presume to definition the picture, at least not objectively. It features elements of a quirky romantic comedy, but it's still rather dry and matter-of-fact. You can project sentimentality upon it, or see it as a coolly clinical exploration of a notion. Happenstance doesn't exist in a vacuum, instead relying on the audience to meet it half way. You can allow each scene to pass through your eyes, taking it at surface value, or you can engage its myriad characters and complex structure-- working out the meaning and causality. With a bit of patience, it can be anything you want it to be, and for my part, its a pleasure to view.

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