Clara (Lola Le Lann), a Belgian teen, lives with her mother Laurence (Veerle Baetens) at the truck stop hotel they run in a gray, industrial section of an unnamed city. Her father is in prison for reasons she won’t explain, Laurence won’t let her visit him in jail.
A Bluebird In My Heart refers to a Charles Bukowski poem, “Bluebird,” which includes the line, “There’s a bluebird in my heart, but I’m too tough to let him out. I say stay in there, I’m not going to let anybody see you.” That’s an apt summary of Danny (Roland Møller), a paroled convict who checks into the hotel one day. Clara immediately takes to him, perhaps seeing him as a surrogate for her absent father. Danny keeps her at arm’s length initially as he settles into his new home. But Clara is persistent, and eventually, he lets her tag along but offers almost no information about himself. His recent release from incarceration fascinates Clara, who naively asks if he met her father in prison.
“…although technically a free man, he’s still a prisoner in the eyes of the state.”
In what must be a constant reminder to him of his former life as a convict, Danny is obliged to wear an electronic anklet that keeps tabs on him. Although technically a free man, he’s still a prisoner in the eyes of the state. He finds a job as a dishwasher at a Chinese restaurant and does repair work for Laurence in return for free rent. As Danny becomes more comfortable in his new quarters, we begin to suspect that this sense of normalcy will be short-lived. And as if fated by the gods, it doesn’t take long for Danny’s feeling of wellbeing to dissipate. When Clara’s sleazy, brutal friend plies her with drugs and rapes her, Danny’s new-found stable life begins to come apart.
The cast is uniformly first-rate, as is the direction. Møller’s Danny is a credible ex-convict with a streak of humanity. His eventual missteps are not self-serving but are motivated by loyalty, keeping promises and the pursuit of justice. Le Lann turns in a strong performance as the emotionally wounded, lonely and vulnerable Clara. We also feel for her mother, as portrayed by Baetens, who is herself emotionally wounded and trying to protect Clara from the pain she’s keeping under wraps.
“…the film morphs from a character study into crime film, the action grows more taut…”
As the film morphs from a character study into crime film, the action grows more taut, as it ought to. Danny’s downward spiral is reminiscent of the many anti-heroes of film noir. But lacking an essential element of film noir, a femme fatale — which would imply a high level of deceptive behavior — this movie doesn’t fit neatly into that genre. Call it a sturdy crime drama that brings us closer to the lives of its downtrodden characters.
With Clara and her mother in a bad situation, due to the absent father and husband, and Danny is trapped by his criminal past, we’re never told the details of what landed him in prison. It’s easy to imagine that his vulnerabilities are a byproduct of his humane instincts and sometimes poor judgment. The film doesn’t try to tie up all loose ends at its conclusion, but that’s OK. We come away from it with a feeling of melancholy and a sense of hope. And that’s a pretty good balancing act.
A Bluebird in My Heart (2018) Directed by Jérémie Guez. Written by Jérémie Guez, Dannie M. Martin. Starring Roland Møller, Veerle Baetens, Lubna Azabalt.
8 out of 10