It is no easy task to get audiences to root for an incestuous relationship, or even secure funding for such a film to be produced. Incest is often made to look ugly and sinister; it generally serves as the antithesis to all things good and pure in the narrative world. Whether it is the dark secret tearing a family apart, or the repressed memory haunting a protagonist, sexual encounters between two members of the same family are almost always seen as evil, or at least stemming from an immoral place. However, there are also times when incest is used for comedic effect; it is so terrible that it becomes humorous, like when films mock backwoods hillbillies who want to marry their sisters, ostensibly for lack of better options. But even in these situations, the humor can be read as overly crass, making light of an otherwise serious subject matter. Incest is often viewed as a severe form of sexual depravity, and thus too grave an area to be treated with anything other than abject horror and disgust. But there is a third approach, only occasionally seen in films, wherein incest is not dismissed as evil or disgusting at all. Instead, it is presented somewhere on the scale between mildly unethical and morally ambiguous, possibly even going as far as to be morally acceptable, albeit within a very particular framework. Films such as Christophe Honore’s Ma Mere (2004) or Tom Kalin’s Savage Grace (2007) address incestuous relationships between mother and son without condemning the act itself; but in both cases, certain artistic choices on the part of the filmmakers work to make sure audiences remain uneasy with incestuous relationships, despite not portraying these relationships as completely wrong. Incest has never been presented in film as a purely good or permissible thing. However, there have been instances when filmmakers have pushed the matter as close as it can go to true acceptability; such is the case in Marguerite & Julien.
The screenplay (originally written for Francois Truffaut), is based on the real-life story of Marguerite and Julien de Ravalet, 17th century siblings from an aristocratic family who were executed on charges of incest and adultery. In the film, we see the pair as young children, completely smitten with one another. The local Abbot and friend of the family warns their parents that Marguerite and Julien are growing too close, and recommends that they be separated. Thus begins a long period during which Julien furthers his studies and travels the world, while Marguerite stays home, longing for his return. When the two are finally reunited as young adults, they can hardly contain their love for one another, but their parents, fearing for their children’s souls, do everything they can to stifle the relationship. Nonetheless, the two lovers have no intention of giving in, and they continue their passionate love affair, even while being pursued by the police.
At its most basic, Marguerite & Julien is a tragic recounting of forbidden love. Within the confines of the film, love should not be bound by law, religious doctrine, or even societal norms. Love is love, and it cannot be wrong. It is the world that is wrong for punishing the act of love between two innocent, well-intentioned people. Even if taken outside of the narrative, the situation that the two siblings find themselves in does seem rather unfair. They cannot help their love for one another. They follow their hearts, and everyone despises them for it, and wants them to be executed for their actions.
Besides portraying incest in a relatively positive, nonjudgmental light, Marguerite & Julien is unique in how it tells the story. For the first two-thirds of the film, we see the brother and sister’s plight as a story within a story. Late at night at an institution for girls, one of the headmistresses decides to entertain the girls with the story of Marguerite and Julien. This, in itself, is a bit odd, as the girls listening to the retelling are quite young, and the story revolves around two siblings having sex with one another. Eventually, this bizarre framework is abandoned outright, and we simply observe Marguerite and Julien’s escape from authorities as it unfolds. However, even this direct observation is jarring at times, as the clothing, décor, and modes of transportation suddenly shift from archaic to modern and back to archaic again. In one scene, the characters are traveling via horse and carriage, wearing the clothing of the times (the 1600s), and in the very next, we see street cars entering the frame, and the characters dress as though it is sometime in the early 20th century. Even though we are observing the same characters in the same situations, there are moments when Julien is being taken away in a helicopter, and moments when their father is pleading with the king of France to pardon his two children for their crimes. These apparent shifts in time are somewhat confusing, but ultimately they contribute to the idea that the tale of Marguerite and Julien is not some story that is too old to be relevant, but a timeless defense of love in all its many forms. Marguerite and Julien are every gay couple, every interracial couple, and every couple who has ever faced discrimination for openly practicing their love. But in a sense, this story is even more tragic than most, as incestuous relationships, no matter how pure the love may be, are still illegal in most places and not accepted by the general populace. That is part of what makes the film so unique. Rather than giving in to the demands of traditional morality, Marguerite & Julien ignores what is accepted and what isn’t, and simply shows two young people who never stop loving one another, despite the many barriers and hardships they face.
Though Marguerite & Julien is not for everyone, it is a beautifully poignant film on a sensitive subject matter. There are times when certain artistic choices will leave audience members scratching their heads, but ultimately the portrayal of Marguerite and Julien’s forbidden love is so genuine and unapologetic, it makes up for any confusion one might have with the direction.
Marguerite & Julien is currently available to stream on Netflix.
Rating: ★★★★ out of 5