BEATRICE * * Bernard Pierre Donnadieu, Julie Delpy; in French, with English subtitles; rated R (violence, sex, nudity, profanity, vulgarity); exclusively at the Blue Mouse Theater.
"I don't dread hell - we already dwell there," says Francois toward the end of "Beatrice."What he fails to add, however, is that he is the main cause of this particular hell on earth.
Francois' reign of terror, in and about the castle in which he and his family live in medieval France, begins when he is a young child. Before going off to fight in the Hundred Years War, Francois' father gives his sword to the boy and tells him to watch over his mother because "she is so comely and men are so brutal."
No sooner does this occur than Francois dances into the castle and discovers his mother in bed with another man. In a passionate rage Francois stabs his mother's lover to death with his father's sword. He then orders his mother to dispose of the body. The boy is suddenly a man - and he doesn't change much in the years to come.
The action shifts to several years hence, with Francois much older but no wiser. He is now a warrior himself, but the British are soundly pounding the French in the Hundred Years War and Francois has been a reluctant prisoner of the British for many years.
Upon his eventual return to France, Francois bullies and tortures his weak son, taunts his family and servants, and ultimately marries his own daughter. Francois is a man filled with demons, and his purgings aren't pleasant.
The idea here is that Francois cannot rid himself of his violent tendencies in the frustrating war, so he returns home to take them out on his family and challenge the God that he perceives as having forced such a life upon him.
The focus of the film is Francois' use of his innocent, virtuous daughter Beatrice as the conduit for his rage against God, and her battling him at every turn.
Beatrice is a strong-willed yet idealistic young woman. When we first meet her, before the return of her father, she has only heard stories about his brutality. She doesn't really believe them and anxiously anticipates his return.
Once he arrives, it takes Beatrice a while to understand just how crazed her father is. Once she does, however, she begins to see that he's becoming crazier by the moment, and it doesn't help that his soldiers encourage his evil tendencies as being "manly."
This tangled web of good vs. evil is interesting in its period setting, a time when life was very hard indeed and survival depended not only on one's own strength, but as much upon pleasing those who were stronger - at least until they could be outwitted.
The actors are also very good, particularly Julie Delpy as Beatrice and Bernard Pierre Donnadieu as her domineering, overbearing, demonic father.
But director Bertrand Tavernier, who usually has a lighter touch than this, has made "Beatrice" a most depressing, downbeat and unenjoyable epic. If this seemed to have more of a point, or if the drama were more compelling, "Beatrice" might be a memorable, if horrible parable.
As it is, however - graphic, distressing and completely without hope - "Beatrice" is a sullen two hours and eight minutes you might rather spend elsewhere.
It is rated R for violence, sex, nudity, profanity and vulgarity.