Would-be writer turns page in French Two Lives

Eliane Weiss has a full life — perhaps too full. There’s scarcely room for private thoughts, personal moments or secret dreams.

The French heroine of “Two Lives Plus One” has to lock herself in the bathroom simply to stake out a place to write in her notebook. After Eliane (the winsome Emmanuelle Devos) splurges on a laptop computer — and what a curious commotion that provokes among her husband, teenage daughter and extended family — she claims the wee hours for her creative pursuits.

Jewish actress turned writer-director Idit Cebula’s debut feature is a brisk little yarn about one woman’s semi-comic yearnings to push beyond the codified, calcified roles everyone has assigned to her, and to claim a new identity as a writer.

A half-baked mix of goofy farce and domestic drama, “Two Lives Plus One” is an agreeable romp if one forgives the arbitrary tonal shifts and barely sketched supporting characters. The charming performances by Devos and Gérard Darmon (as Eliane’s older, conservative husband) are essential in putting over the slender story, and carrying viewers through any number of head-scratching scenes.

“Two Lives Plus One ” makes its North American premiere with a screening July 27 at the Castro Theatre as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and also plays the Palo Alto and San Rafael legs. The film is co-presented by Alliance Francaise de San Francisco and Jewish Singles Over Forty.

Oddly enough, for a film about the genesis of a writer, “Two Lives” is not particularly interested in the source of Eliane’s inspiration or her process of creation. Nor does it present her as a frustrated woman trapped in a drone job and inexorably driven to express her true self.

The movie begins by placing Eliane in the center of an extended Jewish family that has dinner together every week at her elderly mother’s apartment. Mama, who’s still trying to learn the French words for various Yiddishisms after all these years (or maybe she knows them and her memory is going), is both a nudge and a comfort.

The heart of the movie, though, is Eliane’s relationship with her husband, Sylvain. As a longtime couple still deeply in love but also set in their routines, they live on the border between affection and boredom.

Eliane is an enthusiastic teacher of young children at a public school, though her attention and diligence wane as she gets the whim to expand her horizons. She never articulates it, but this educated, intelligent and underachieving woman wants to be recognized for something other than being a good wife and mom.

Eliane epitomizes the middle-class woman who wakes up one day and decides to become actualized, to use a California term. It’s certainly a common experience, but it’s not exactly a predicament that has us holding our breath as to her fate, or rooting with every fiber of our being.

The poignant Israeli film “Aviva, My Love,” which screened at last year’s festival, also centered on a wife and mother who wanted to become a writer. But Aviva was lower-middle class and the sole breadwinner for her family, so her urgent aspirations had serious repercussions.

There’s nothing at stake in “Two Lives Plus One,” even though Eliane is pursuing a new identity and greater freedom. If it doesn’t pan out, she’s still got a perfectly good life with Sylvain and their loving daughter.

And if she succeeds? She’ll still be just another member of the family swapping quips around Mama’s table.

“Two Lives Plus One” screens at 10:15 p.m. July 27 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, 8:45 p.m. Aug. 2 at CineArts in Palo Alto and 9:30 p.m. Aug. 10 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

Cinema simcha

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.