Antoine (Thomas Blanchard) shows up at the door of his ex-partner Camille (Judith Chemla). It has been a number of years since they last spoke, and she unfortunately has no time (nor does she wish to make time), waiting on a babysitter for her daughter Elsa (Lina Doillon) to arrive so she can catch a flight to attend an important business meeting. In desperation, she asks Antoine to watch Elsa. Antoine happens to be Elsa’s father, something Elsa does not know.
This is presented to us within minutes. We don’t particularly know why Antoine decided on that day to turn up on Camille’s doorstep, but maybe we will as the film progresses. The Elephant and the Butterfly is an understated film, yet it’s brimming with optimism and hope. Never does it shine brighter than in Elsa herself: A fair amount of pre-release material has sung the praises of Doillon and they’re not wrong to, she casts light upon every scene she’s in and brings warmth to every character. The time she spends reconnecting with her (unknown to her) father is effortlessly watchable.
There is a quiet confidence to the film’s storytelling. Clearly there is plenty of history between Antoine and Camille, seen in the tension present in their minimal dialogues and interactions with each other’s families yet these are never brought to the forefront of the film. They instead serve as supporting morsels to Antoine reconnecting with Elsa, something that could be interpreted as how a child would perceive events; the complexities of adult life and relationships mean little to a child happily spending time with her new friend.
For a second feature, director Amélie van Elmbt displays effortless control. Much like the story (where she is credited as co-writer of the script) there is a clear sense of focus, where the camera remains unobtrusive and observant, grounding us in the reality of these characters’ lives. It is an exemplary harmony of style and tone, where the emotional impact feels natural and earned, as far from manipulative as is possible. Character comes first here, and van Elmbt proves herself to be a mature filmmaker able to let them take centre stage.
How these characters organically grow is the richest aspect of the film. Antoine’s temperament is softened while Camille’s justified anxiety lessens, and by the climax they themselves appear more at ease and enjoying each moment, much like Elsa has been. It may end rather abruptly, but the brief journey we are taken on is fulfilling and comes to a satisfying resolution. Kids can be really great.
For more on the Glasgow Film Festival 2019 click here.