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Farmhands: Michel Serrault and Mathilde Seigner form an unlikely alliance in 'The Girl From Paris.'

Goat People

'The Girl From Paris' sows an irresistible tale of country life in the Alps

By Richard von Busack

LEARNED A QUICK LESSON in farming a few years ago up in Oregon, in the hills outside Eugene. The ex-girlfriend and I were visiting some people who lived in a double-wide next to a small farm. They took us out to the nearby creek, and we needed to cross a farmer's pasture to get to it. He saw us and said hi. Looking around at the greenery, the low forested hills and the lambent water bordering it all, I complimented him on his farm, and without a pause he asked, "Do you want to buy it?" It's been easier to get over the ex-girlfriend than it has been to get over the fantasy of chucking it all and buying a goat farm in Mendocino County--an idiotic idea, but at least one isn't alone in the idiocy, as The Girl From Paris shows.

The film tells a story of pride and loneliness battling it out on a picturesque farm in the Rhone Alps. A strong-willed Parisian woman named Sandrine (Mathilde Seigner, with heavy lids, heavy mouth and a heavy jaw--the Frances McDormand type) takes a two-year government training program and about $90,000 in Internet money to purchase a dairy-goat farm. The seller is an old bachelor farmer named Adrien (Michel Serrault, the male lead in the original Diabolique), with a crust on him like a loaf of pain levain. As part of the condition of the sale, he's allowed to live on the grounds of his former farm.

What follows is like a smart, adult version of Heidi, with Sandrine's hard work breaking through the old man's defenses. Sandrine may be a novice farmer, but she's a shrewd business woman, fixing up the cow barn as an office and wiring herself to the web. When she's taking the goats out to forage, it's the picture-perfect fantasy no city dweller can resist, and yet the film's not feather-headed. Director Christian Carion makes sure that the heartbreaking, penny-pinching side of farming isn't stinted, with footage of the slaughter of a hog (the camera doesn't stare).

When the snows come, Sandrine and the old man's uneasy relationship becomes closer and more volatile, a kind of marriage in its way. The elderly farmer's emotions about Sandrine are a mixture between a crush and filial feeling, but that's what any Frenchman would consider normal. The old man's mulish sexism surfaces--he blurts out that the farming life needs "masculine force," and yet his own health is breaking down.

He finally decides to open up to her, to tell her the history of the farm and himself. Because of some poorly chosen moments to use voice-over narration, we know exactly what the farmer is feeling, right when it would be more compelling to guess. Still, this irresistible movie's respect for the unspoken shines out in the penultimate scene at a country church. The cast includes Jean-Paul Roussillon as Jean's less complicated buddy, the fat, jolly farmer that we all hope exists somewhere. One is also grateful for a sequence in Paris, as Carion counts the bridges across the Seine. It's a gentle reminder of all the city allure you'd give up if that lottery ticket came through and you were able to get away to what must be--though we sensibly know it can't be--a life of heart's content in the country.

The Girl From Paris (Unrated; 103 min.), directed by Christian Carion, written by Eric Assous and Carion, photographed by Antoine Heberlé and starring Michel Serrault and Mathilde Seigner, opens Friday at the Towne in San Jose.

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From the September 4-10, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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