Tracing the Steps, by Rita Cannon
Everyone knows the story: In the 19th century, a young girl is both blind and deaf. She grows up a prisoner of her own disability, unable to communicate, lashing out violently whenever she’s upset or afraid (which is often). Luckily, a kind teacher hears of the girl’s troubles and is determined to reach her. She teaches the girl sign language by signing into her hand, and after months of arduous work, even teaches her to speak. The story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan has become an inspiration to millions, but Jean-Pierre Améris’ film Marie’s Story isn’t about them. It’s about Marie Huertin and her teacher Sister Sainte-Marguerite. Huertin was born five years after Keller in Vertou, France, and had a remarkably similar journey from isolation to connection with the outside world. For American audiences, it’s basically impossible not to view Marie’s Story as a French version of The Miracle Worker. While viewers in Huertin’s homeland may not encounter such a stumbling block (the film is simply called Marie Huertin over there, suggesting greater familiarity her story) it will strike many as a retread, and a rather uninspired one at that.
Améris’ film breaks down into two parts. The first half is the inspirational teaching part, which echoes, beat for beat, the story of The Miracle Worker, right down to the pivotal moment when Marie touches something and is able to speak its name, finally opening the floodgates to language acquisition. (Marie’s first word is “knife” rather than “water,” proving once again that the French have always been edgier than us). This section of the film is totally unsurprising, but skates by on the strength of the performances by Ariana Rivoire as Marie and Isabelle Carré as Sister Marguerite. Rivoire is particularly impressive, imbuing Marie with an intense, visceral misery and a physical fierceness that inspires both sympathy and fear, sometimes simultaneously.
It’s not until the second half that Marie’s Story starts to distinguish itself from that of Helen Keller, and it’s considerably less successful once it does. Turns out Sister Marguerite has an unnamed terminal illness, and for reasons that aren’t really explained, everyone decides the best course of action once she’s nearing death is to send her away from Marie with absolutely no explanation about where’s she’s gone or why. Sister Marguerite refuses to say goodbye to Marie, apparently because doing so would upset the girl too much – but is it really less upsetting to have the person who was essentially your link to the rest of humanity disappear without a word? The early death of Sister Marguerite is a historical fact, but it’s handled in such a clumsy, manipulative way that it feels like a contrivance, hastily thrown in to up the narrative ante in the final act.
Ultimately, Marie’s Story has a bit of a perfunctory, autopilot feel, and even the parts that work are like a carbon copy of a story that’s been told many times before and often better. It feels superfluous, even if that’s largely due to a fluke of historical coincidence. You can’t blame Marie Huertin for winding up in Helen Keller’s shadow, but you can sort of blame Jean-Pierre Améris for making a film so undistinguished that it ensures she’ll stay there.