Competing against weightier cinematic fare, Belgian writer/director Amelie Van Elmbt's delightfully pure and wondrous The Elephant and the Butterfly took home one of two Heartland International Film Festival top prizes by snagging the Best Narrative Feature Award and the award's $25,000 cash prize during the 2018 festival in Indy Oct. 11-21.
The film tells the story of Antoine (Thomas Blanchard), who has just returned to his hometown where he reunites with his former lover and the mother (Judith Chemla) of their little girl, Elsa (Lina Doillon), whom he has never met. Through an unexpected turn of events, Antoine suddenly finds himself left alone to take care of the young, inquisitive and spirited girl.
Produced by the Dardenne brothers with none other than Martin Scorsese in the fold as an executive producer, The Elephant and the Butterfly takes a naturalistic approach toward its slight yet affectionate and pleasing story of a father's fumbling toward being a father despite, for reasons that are never really explained, having largely not been present for his daughter's first five years of life.
Van Elmbt avoids hitting any false notes in The Elephant and the Butterfly, allowing the natural development between child and parent rather than forcing the relationship through the usual series of histrionic set-ups we're so used to finding in this sort of film. Oh sure, Antoine and Elsa have their share of hiccups, but they feel more authentic and real than trumped up and forced.
It is perhaps to the credit of Van Elmbt's script that Antoine isn't a seemingly bad chap, though a tad dour and emotionally disconnected he seems like a quietly nurturing and thoughtful presence whose nurturance and thoughtfulness will manifest even more abundantly throughout the course of the film's nearly 90-minute running time. She for the most part avoids going back into the failed relationship, seemingly preferring for the audience to draw its own conclusions and, in turn, allowing the audience to form its own conclusions about this mysterious man suddenly thrust into the life of the child he's never known.
There are little clues, of course, including simply the fact that once her planned babysitter is a no-show the mother, who'd earlier scoffed at Antoine, seemingly has little hesitation in handing over the welfare of her child into his care.
There are no real funny disasters or dramatic hijinks to speak of here, just a sort of meandering journey toward familial bonding. The Elephant and the Butterfly contains a purity about it that makes it an ideal view for someone willing to be patient yet most likely a more challenging view for those used to the usual Americanized movie distractions and special effects.
The film benefits greatly from the adorable yet equally gifted Doillon, whose presence during the Heartland Awards ceremony rather held my rapt attention as those mesmerizing eyes and that warm spirit is even more affecting in person. She's a gifted young child and I'll be anxious to see what, if anything, she does next.
The original score by Michael Andrews is completely sublime, matching the film's rhythm note-for-note, while Eric Gautier's lensing and Laurie Colson's production design are similarly top notch and used quite nicely here.
The Elephant and the Butterfly continues Heartland's tendency toward awarding its top prizes to its less edgy finalists though one must mention that the Heartland International Film Festival continues to broaden its horizons greatly as evidenced by the presence among its finalists of such fine films as 1985 and SXSW Grand Jury Award winner Thunder Road.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic