Poltergeist isn’t the only remake opening this week—or at least it seems that way. Marie’s Story, directed and co-written by Jean-Pierre Améris, tells the tale of a deaf and blind girl born in the late 19th century. Her disabilities render her nearly feral; because her parents don’t know how to control or educate her, they seek help from nuns who run a school for deaf girls.
While on campus, Marie starts struggling against and hitting anyone who tries to restrain her, then climbs a tree. The school’s Mother Superior (Brigitte Catillon) tells her parents that the institution is unequipped to handle their daughter.
But one tenacious young woman is determined to bring Marie out of her isolated world.
Anybody heard of The Miracle Worker?
Sure, there are differences between Marie (Ariana Rivoire, who is deaf) and Helen Keller. Marie is French, and has been unable to see or hear from birth. Keller was American, and lost those senses after falling ill when she was 19 months old.
And Marie’s teacher isn’t a layperson but Sister Marguerite (Isabelle Carré), a nun who can speak and hear but knows sign language. Also, she’s terminally ill, and regards Marie as a way to be of service before her short life ends. But, you know, in an unselfish way.
Otherwise, Marie’s Story proceeds as Keller’d. (Philippe Blasband, who wrote 2007’s Marianne Faithfull-starring Irina Palm, penned the script with Améris.) Marguerite is persistent, and first needs to earn her student’s trust. Once she gets Marie to stop resisting her company, the sister dives into drawing signs on Marie’s palm while having her feel the objects she’s naming; for good measure, Marguerite says the words aloud, too.
The script follows the somewhat lazy problem-to-overcome story formula of nothing working until it does, just after the protagonist is ready to give up. Then: an embarrassment of success, just like that. Granted, Keller allegedly devoured vocabulary after she had the breakthrough of finally relating an object to a sign. Marie’s the same, except her revelation seems to be immediately preceded by stubbornness, not a lack of awareness.
But there are gaps and inconsistencies (minor spoilers ahead). How did Marguerite coax Marie into allowing herself to be bathed and dressed? (Her parents were unable to, therefore she wore a sack and went barefoot.) Why, after always approaching Marie with extreme caution, would Marguerite try to brush her hair by jumping on her?
And, on a grander scale, how on earth do you teach a person whose interactions with the world have been strictly sensual the concepts of patience, death, or even something as simple as parental visits?
Marguerite also becomes uncharacteristically cruel near the end, though this out-of-place turn is more forgivable than an earlier tonal shift, with a scene of Marguerite walking around wearing a blindfold and earplugs as another nun scurries after her. It’s not quite Benny Hill, but the jaunty score accompanying Marguerite’s experiment is too closely indicative of slapstick.
Marie’s Story may be regarded as uneven (if you’re charitable) or forced (if you’re not). Rivoire, however, gives an unbridled performance that never feels false. Carré isn’t asked to do much more than smile, get frustrated, and pout, but throughout the film she infuses Marguerite with such childlike idealism you can almost spot a halo atop her veil.
You also can’t deny that Marie’s progress—the character is “inspired by” a real person named not Helen Keller but Marie Heurtin—is remarkable. The filmmakers might not be the smoothest storytellers here, but you’ll be invested from the opening scenes, trying to wrap your brain around what life would be like if you’d never been able to see or hear and how anyone could penetrate those barriers to convey to you the intricacies of the human race. Marie’s Story disappoints, but Marie’s story astounds.
Marie’s Story opens Friday at the Angelika Pop-Up.