Actress and now debuting director, writer and composer Aurélie Saada pours a tremendous amount of personal nostalgia into “Rose,” a feature steeped in love for her North African Jewish roots, from music (all written by Saada) to food — the credits even include her recipe for “makroud,” a date-filled cookie. The film stars Françoise Fabian as a recent widow hesitantly engaging with the world while emerging from under her children’s straightjacketing concerns, and though the storied actress’ personality offers moments of charm and occasional depth, a weak, cliché-riddled script reduces almost everyone to a maximum of two characteristics. The result is that “Rose” never truly blooms. Notwithstanding such a handicap, its all-embracing effusion of Jewishness, both Sephardic and Ashkenazi, guarantees an easy sell across the Atlantic.
The entire Goldberg family and their friends are literally in a swirl of merriment for the birthday of pater familias Philippe (Bernard Murat), celebrated at a big bash replete with Yiddish songs and the hora. It seems an odd time for his Orthodox doctor son Pierre (Grégory Montel, “Call My Agent”) to tell him his troubling MRI results, but the script has a tendency to clumsily shoehorn information in ways more suited to a soap opera. Better conveyed is the deep love between Philippe and Rose, compressed in the opening minutes to maximize the impact of his imminent demise.
Her husband’s death after more than 50 years of marriage hits Rose like a ton of bricks, much to the concern of her children who have their own issues. Ultra-rigid Pierre is meant to be the stable one, but his marriage to Tsilla (Déborah Saïag) has all the residual warmth of yesterday’s brisket. Choreographer Sarah (Aure Atika) still carries a torch for her ex-husband Nicolas (Mehdi Nebbou), and high-strung, low-ethics schnorrer Léon (Damien Chapelle) is living with mom while waiting to hear whether he’ll be jailed for selling stolen merchandise. Sarah tries to get her mother out of her funk by bringing her to a dinner party, which at first seems like a big mistake given everyone else’s age and the sexualized conversations around the table, but then Marceline (Michèle Moretti) arrives, more or less Rose’s peer, and with her big spliff and exaggerated “I am the party” manner, exposes the new widow to possibilities outside her middle-class reserve.
Though the old broad’s joie de vivre isn’t Rose’s style, it does help her realize she has a future as well as a past. A flirtation with the much younger restaurant proprietor Laurent (Pascal Elbé) makes her feel comfortable with the inevitable sags of a senior body, but it also raises self-expectations she’s unprepared to handle. The rocky shoals of widowhood aren’t easy to negotiate, yet Rose fixes a determined eye on a horizon that beckons with qualified fulfillment.
“Rose” is no “Gloria”: It lacks the depth of Sebastian Lelio’s original, but perhaps it’s an unfair and unwanted comparison, brought to mind solely by the mutual theme of an older woman with grown kids figuring out the single life. Rose herself is of course older, and Saada mixes generous dollops of Sephardic color (the protagonist has Tunisian origins) together with heapings of Yiddishkeit that raise the spirits and clearly connect to the director’s upbringing, though given the lack of nuance it sometimes feels like pandering to the kind of Jewish audiences the film seems designed to woo.
The real problem is the way Saada and co-writer Yaël Langmann telescope the different personalities, attempting to squeeze in foibles and traits that superficially cling to each role without providing depth: Pierre is too sullen, Léon utterly devoid of modulation. Sarah could be more interesting but she’s not given enough independence, which leaves Rose herself, with her Lily Munster white streak, conveying an appropriately confused sense of loss mixed with hesitant hope that she still has some good years left. In that regard, Fabian does the script more favors than she receives.
Cinematographer Martin de Chabaneix’s widescreen visuals aims to reflect the psychological state of its subjects, varying from the quicksilver ebullience of the opening party scene to the uncertain yet determined emotional state of the finale. Shortly after Philippe’s death, the camera mimics Rose’s instability with a kind of wooziness that feels more forced than necessary, though it matches the general lack of subtlety. Saaba’s own musical compositions have a bouncy, pleasant familiarity.
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