Despite an attractive cast and gorgeous pastoral setting, this incestuous love story is as exciting as an episode of Springwatch

The title sequence of Marguerite & Julien, the new film from France’s Valérie Donzelli, is as camp as cupcakes. Over a hyperventilating, Serge Gainsbourg-style ballad, we see a young couple fleeing through a tangled forest, pursued by dogs and soldiers, while the film’s title pops up in hand-written, cursive script with a pair of cartoon bluebirds perched on top.

These are Marguerite and Julien de Ravalet, an aristocratic brother and sister engaged in an incestuous and illegal romance – and Donzelli’s film seems to be positioning their affair as some kind of arch, forbidden treat.

The opening suggests the film will be a New Wave throwback – and in fact Donzelli has adapted the film, with her star and co-writer Jérémie Elkaïm, from an unused François Truffaut script, and she uses the same kind of playful techniques deployed by Truffaut in films like Jules & Jim – irising in and out on images (the ‘spotlight’ effect often seen at the end of old cartoons) or staging scenes as freeze-frame-like tableaux that suddenly spring to life.

Yet nothing beneath Marguerite & Julien’s fussy surface suggests any kind of understanding of why Truffaut’s films were and remain so exhilarating and surging with life. Instead, Donzelli’s film plays out with plodding straightforwardness, one scene following on from the next with almost no time for reflection, or the building of erotic tension, or a sense of scandal, or anything else.

The one intriguing trick is a framing device in which Marguerite and Julien’s exploits are being told as a bedtime story to a dormitory of young schoolgirls, who receive this tragedy of forbidden love with wide-eyed delight, as if it’s a fairy tale. Perhaps Donzelli is suggesting that the story has the same kind of primal force as myth: if so, it certainly isn’t borne out within the drab central narrative.

Donzelli’s film is based on true events which took place in France in the early 1600s, though here, the period setting keeps changing – one scene takes place in the 1600s, the next in the Seventies, and so on – to no discernible purpose. (At least Anaïs Demoustier, who plays Marguerite, gets to look nice in a range of knitwear from various eras.)

When the siblings are suspected within the immediate family circle to be closer than is healthy, and when the pair abandon a dinner party to play sex games in the attic, the local glowering Abbé (Sami Frey) insists the pair be separated for the family’s spiritual health. 

Marguerite is married off to a middle-aged tax collector (Raoul Fernandez), the only man who’ll have her once the rumours get around. But lovesick Julien plots an elopement, and the pair take off through the countryside, hoping to flee to Britain as husband and wife. Given the film’s attractive cast and fecund, pastoral setting, you’re shaken by just how fantastically un-taboo the whole thing feels.

A love scene that takes place in a forest clearing reminded me, unforgivably, of a clip of badgers mating on Springwatch; all it lacked was a running commentary from Bill Oddie. There are occasional glimpses of something worthwhile in Donzelli’s film: the photography by Céline Bozon is often beautiful, and the bid to keep the spirit of Truffaut alive is a wholly commendable one. But there are smarter ways to do it than like this.