Filmed in faded tones, as if anticipating the arrival of World War I, “Villa Des Roses” in itself feels faded. Characters wonder, laugh, and talk, but why do their conversations, loves, and eccentricities deserve the attention director Frank Van Passel feels fit to shower upon them? It’s enough that the first attraction here is the ethereal Julie Delpy as a widow working a new life as a chambermaid at the run-down Villa Des Roses, but it’s not enough to keep up any interest in what is performed here, beyond the obvious attractions besides Delpy.
In navigating our way through the Villa Des Roses, it is realized that the only person who really has any mind is the cook general, Ella (Shirley Henderson), who is British and blunt about what she sees, while the other residents of this mansion prefer to simply drift, speak a few lines, and never really act or make any attempt to be a character. This, in time, is due to the eventual romance between Delpy’s chambermaid, Louise and a German boarder, Richard (Shaun Dingwall), which moves the characters to a second-string storyline in the attempts by the head of the Villa (Harriet Walter) to bring in new guests and her husband (Timothy West), tormenting the old woman whose son used to own the place.
Delpy is an actress who will age gracefully, no matter what role she takes. While my disappointment still remains over her not being in “The Da Vinci Code”, it’s understandable because she doesn’t seem like an actress willing to kowtow to Hollywood standards. Her native France has always been good to her and whenever an American uses her in a film, such as Richard Linklater, he or another is smart enough to keep her where she is comfortable, with locations as beautiful as she is. Even if it’s simply New Jersey, as Jim Jarmusch had in “Broken Flowers”, he knows that she deserves lighting and chances befitted her. “Villa Des Roses”, however, as Frank Van Passel makes it, has her merely doe-eyed, looking pained in all the right moments. She’s new to this strange world, but isn’t able to make much of it. The relationship between her and Richard isn’t made of much passion. Louise isn’t ready for a new relationship quite yet due to her husband’s death aboard the Titanic (thankfully mentioned only through a window display of the sinking ship and her reaction), but for whatever mysterious reason, she draws closer and closer to him, even as he and Ella harbor some kind of bet over her which goes nowhere. What’s the point of this bet? This isn’t “Cruel Intentions” in any way, no reason to have any kind of money placed on this. It’s insisted upon, and money is always appreciated in a place like this, as evidenced by the greedy collection of money through a will and this little situation.
The most underused character is another guest (Frank Vercruyssen) who sometimes hangs naked from the ceiling, but exhibits the real emotion that has shied away from Richard. He’s a sensitive soul and unfortunate in only being used to serve as comparison to the German artist, nothing more. Colorful characters can only last so long as the actors are given reason to make them colorful. Here, these people are just a bunch of souls slowly drifting until the first moments of war descend upon France. Souls have drifted for decades in the movies, but even a good portion of those have had life injected into them. Outside of Delpy, Henderson, and to some extent even Walter and West, “Villa Des Roses” is the worst kind of indifferent feeling one can have toward a movie. It’s not bad, because of the cinematography and some of the actors, but it’s not good because of the lack of the passion Henderson claims Paris possesses. It’s just there. Nothing more.