It is a heck of an artist’s residency. Those selected by the French Academy in Rome spend a year living and working in the Villa Medici on the Pincian Hill. It also comes with money. Given the French Academy’s long, prestigious history, it rather follows when some resident come to suspect there are ghosts haunting the villa’s manicured grounds in Caroline Deruas’s Daydreams (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in New York.
Camille has a few well-received short stories to her credit, but deep down she suspects she was chosen due to the fame of her celebrated novelist husband Marc (who of course, is only too willing to take credit for his “networking” on her behalf). Axèle is pretty sure she was only admitted after she pulled a gun on the director, but hey, whatever works.
Despite their radically different temperaments and circumstances, they develop a rather odd friendship soon after their arrival in Rome. Camille is definitely the more confiding one, but Axèle immediately shares her interest in Lucienne Heuvelmans, the first woman admitted to the Academy in Rome. In fact, Axèle soon starts to see ghostly visions of Heuvelmans and the other randy cardinals and empresses who infamously spent time at the Villa. It is a bit disturbing in the moment, but at least it inspires some eerie new directions in her work.
The villa setting is so amazing, viewers would still stay there if they had the chance, even if it is haunted. As it happens, the spectral sequences are rather awkwardly executed and therefore generally unconvincing (especially when compared to Assayas’s ultra-spooky non-horror movie, Personal Shopper, opening this week in theaters). However, Daydreams is fascinating as a meditation on the artist’s life and for its potentially messy biographical implications. Deruas is indeed a former Academy in Rome resident. It is also worth noting she has been credited as Caroline Deruas-Garrel when co-writing screenplays with her husband, French auteur Philippe Garrel.
Jenna Thiam is basically a revelation as the defiantly unpredictable, borderline unstable Axèle. She is an absolute force, but one that attracts (and credibly so). On the other end of the spectrum, Tchéky Karyo gives an unusually subtle and finely shaded performance as Marc, the husband who maybe does not fully realize the manipulative nature of his behavior. That sort of leaves Clotilde Hesme’s Camille stuck in the middle, in more ways than one. Yet for both grace and grit, nobody can touch Renato Carpentieri’s portrayal of Carlo, the veteran groundskeeper Axèle befriends.
Deruas mordantly skewers the jealousies and pretensions of the cloistered artists, but her pointedly critical depiction of the Academy’s budget cutting and revenue-raising efforts only merits embarrassed eye-rolls. Keeping up a Seventeenth Century institution like the Academy in Rome costs serious Twenty-First Century money. Perhaps Deruas would care to donate her stipend if she believes booking weddings at the villa is so tacky. Regardless, the taste she provides of this rarified world is admittedly intoxicating. Recommended for those who are fascinated by the setting and milieu, Daydreams screens this Wednesday (3/8) and Friday (3/10) at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2017 Rendezvous with French Cinema.