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‘Olivier Olivier’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 19, 1993

In "Olivier Oliver" writer/director Agnieszka Holland goes about her story in thoughtful, unusual ways. Those conditioned for subtlety-free Hollywood thrillers will curse and stumble their way through her slow-twisting mystery. The drama -- about a disappeared child -- meanders deliberately, almost mystically through time. It resists answers to conventionally pressing questions, but offers a wealth of other insights. It's almost maddeningly original.

A French family headed by irascible veterinarian Serge (Francois Cluzet) lives in idyllic country surroundings, but is too dysfunctional to notice. Self-obsessed Serge regularly rails at his wife and children for interfering with his tightly controlled schedule. His wife Elisabeth (Brigitte Rouan) spends her psychic energy on angelic 9-year-old son Olivier (Emmanuel Morozof). Her over-the-top devotion excludes preteen daughter Nadine (Faye Gatteau), who observes the favoritism with Gallic sullenness. Nadine, however, is equally affectionate towards her brother, filling his head with imaginative bunk about animals and extra-terrestrials.

One morning, Elisabeth dispatches Olivier on his bicycle to take supplies to his grandmother. He does not return. The frantic parents sound the alarm, surrounding themselves with a gaggle of rural, head-shaking locals and freshman police inspector Druot (Jean-Francois Stevenin). As Olivier's absence grows, Elisabeth unravels. Exasperated by his obsessed wife, Serge accepts a post in Chad. Elisabeth, fiercely determined to find her son, remains in France. Nadine decides to stay with her mother, even though Elisabeth clearly favors Olivier over everyone.

After a six-year transition, Inspector Druot, long since transferred to Paris, re-contacts Elisabeth with startling news. He believes a smart-alecky Parisian urchin (who picks up men in public bathrooms, among other things) is her long-lost son. The teenager (Gregoire Colin), the right age to be Olivier, is fuzzy on his past. But little by little, he gives hints that he remembers. Elisabeth is overjoyed, as is Serge, who returns from Africa to see him. But Nadine eyes the boy skeptically. Is this really Olivier? If so, what happened to him?

Thanks to Holland's deft manipulations and a uniformly strong cast, "Olivier" remains full of surprise. It never fails for touching and unconventionally humane moments. These under-the-surface elements are vital, because the story (even though it's based on real events) fights a losing battle against credibility. Holland, who directed "Europa Europa," and scripted Andrzej Wajda's "Korczak," is a strong but not masterful filmmaker. She is adept rather than brilliant. She's dead on target but her shots only just reach their mark. If you saw her "To Kill a Priest," you'd know she sometimes misses completely. This may come across as quibbling, especially in the face of Hollywood's assembly line of cartoonish characters living formulaic lifestyles. But Holland's work is worthy of intense scrutiny. That she reaches the ceiling of her shortcomings and breaks the plaster is as fine an achievement as anyone could hope for.

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