Provenance

 

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A romantic mystery is given an exquisite sheen in Ben Hecking’s poised feature debut.

   
Provenance

The environs of Entrecasteaux in Provence

 

Provenance could be one of the most beautiful films you see all year. The quiet, pastoral town of Entrecasteaux is one of those ancient French retreats that no tourist board could exaggerate. The sleepy surrounding countryside perched in the wooded foothills of the French Alps is a painter’s dream come true. The stone, bucolic home of the classical pianist John Finch is the sort of haven one imagines reserved only for the very privileged. And the exquisite, sun-kissed visage of the Spanish actress Charlotte Vega is a human complement that completes the cycle of picturesque perfection.

 

The title, too, is clever. A wordplay on the definition of something’s true origin and the film’s location of Provence both weave their way into the fabric of the narrative. Only the opening images of a couple engaged in physical intimacy sounds an inauthentic note, jarring with the tone of the rest of the film. Then John Finch wakes up from his sweaty reverie before setting off for his morning ritual: a walk across the river and into town for his coffee, croissant and copy of the London Times. He is well known in the village, being both an outsider and a late riser (dubbed the “10 o’clock cuckoo”). He seems content, too, with his own company and immediately we are intrigued as to his solitary position and, well, his provenance. Some of this is explained when he is befriended by a fellow Englishman, a young historian visiting the town. Initially aloof, John welcomes the company of the stranger and the pair end up spending a drunken evening in the local bistro. The latter, Peter, admits that he has looked John up and knows that he is a successful classical pianist. And thus John’s identity is explained, without the use of artificial exposition. Of course, there is more to learn and, this being a romantic mystery, we must expect the emergence of the woman from the opening scenes.

 

Marking the feature debut of the writer-director Ben Hecking, the film exhibits a confident, laidback ease in the telling. Wisely, Hecking trusts the thespian smarts of his actors and the location he has set them in. The pace is slow, but there are tell-tale clues scattered throughout to engage our interest. A cherished paperback of Anaïs Nin's short story collection Little Birds augurs some of what is to come, but only if one knows one’s Anaïs Nin. Likewise, there is Dante’s contention that “a lie cannot hide itself.” Nothing is forced and the nuance may be too subtle for many, making the film feel slight and even plodding. But it is so beautifully mounted and as John, Christian McKay cuts an urbane, enigmatic figure, while Señorita Vega is both touching and beguiling. Unfortunately, the pay-off is as cheap as the opening glimpses of softcore sex, throwing the story’s integrity off-balance. So much talent is here, but not at the service of the film’s emotional engagement.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Christian McKay, Charlotte Vega, Harry Macqueen, Chereene Allen, Ludivine Parra.

 

Dir Ben Hecking, Pro Amanda Atkins, Screenplay Ben Hecking, Ph Ben Hecking, Pro Des Eléonore Cremonese, Ed Andonis Trattos, Costumes Kara Colbeck.

 

White Horse Films-Parkland Pictures

97 mins. UK. 2017. Rel: 13 Juy 2020. Available on Curzon Home Cinema. Cert. 15.