I Heart Cartagena

Yesterday I had to make a choice between two movies I was really hoping to watch during Dubai Film Fest as they were playing at the same time: Peru’s Milk of Sorrow and France’s Cartagena (L’Homme de Chevet). I went for the latter because I took my first swig of Agua Ardiente Antioqueño when I was 15 and since then, Colombia has always greeted me with a smile.

Based on the novel L’Homme de Chevet (The Bedside Man) by Eric Holder, the Alain Monne-directed picture asks that you suspend your cynicism and believe that love can, indeed, conquer all. It’s also an homage to the historic Caribbean city of Cartagena, where the French filmmaker has spent significant time.

The story centers around two lovers: Muriel, a tetraplegic woman (elegantly portrayed by the gorgeous Sophie Marceau) and Leo, a washed up, former European boxing champion (played by Marceau’s real-life partner Christophe Lambert).

The movie opens with Leo showing up at a beautifully ancient house in downtown Cartagena to interview for a job. Imagine my surprise when La Gaviota, a.k.a Margarita Rosa de Francisco, opens the door! She plays the morphine-addicted but patient nurse to Marceau’s character, and she looks prettier than ever. But she can’t do the job alone because tending to Muriel is a 24/7 gig that includes, among other things, bathing, feeding, and “percussion,” a process where she gently taps on Muriel’s stomach until she digests her food and then requires cleaning. Muriel is, as expected, bitter, and she takes that out on those around her. Since the tragic accident that left her paralyzed and ended her engagement to a French diplomat, she’s been through 40 caretakers, all of them female. But something about this mysterious man (he won’t reveal why he’s come back to his birthplace of Cartagena after having lived the majority of his life in France) captivates her. She hires him and in time, they develop a beautiful friendship/love that is the stuff of the great French poets like Baudelaire. There are several Julian Schnabel-esque moments in which the sun and the sea provide an emotional escape to these two human beings who have only really known suffering, until they find each other. In the beginning, Leo is a raging alcoholic, who secretly drinks Muriel’s disinfectant and cooking wine, but in time, he heals. Along the way, he coaches his boxing protégée, a part-time prostitute named Lina (in a standout performance by Linnet Hernandez Valdes) to victory. Muriel, for her part, finds the strength to do things she had long given up, like rolling around in the grass or going to buy old books in the park (reading is all that she has left).

It’s remarkable what Marceau does with the limited use of her body while Lambert’s rawness is, in large part, what keeps you pulling for this unlikely pair.

Stay tuned for my thoughts on Broken Embraces next week, just in time for its nationwide release of 12/25 (right now it’s playing in NYC and LA).

Check out the trailer for Cartagena here: