The Baroness and the Pig

It would be difficult for a film called “The Baroness and the Pig” to be any more interesting than its title, and this film isn’t. It is an unusually low-key affair that remains frustratingly calm even when the events depicted are stressful or emotional. It is like watching a rock band play in a library, hesitantly and with unreasonably subdued energy.

Based on Michael MacKenzie’s play and directed by him, the film is set in Paris in 1887. The titular Baroness (Patricia Clarkson), an American expatriate married to a British art expert (Colm Feore), seeks to have all the latest inventions — phonographs, electric lights, and so on — and to host a “modern, progressive” salon and be part of the French social circles.

Snobbishness among the natives is her constant obstacle, and for reasons not entirely explained other than by her boredom and curiosity, she locates a girl named Emily (Caroline Dhavernas) who has been raised by pigs. That’s right, pigs. The Baroness wants to clean up Emily, and to employ her on the household staff. The Baroness, one might say, puts the “pig” in Pygmalion.

Her husband disapproves in the extreme, but since his art speculations haven’t gone as well as he’d hoped, he sort of needs his wife’s money to stay afloat. And so he lets her go on with her foolish ideas about art and technology (all the while diddling any maids he can get his hands on, by the way).

The film stops being about Emily’s civilization process for a while and focuses on the Baroness’ social efforts, not to mention the Baron’s misdeeds. It all comes ’round again in the end, though not to a particularly satisfying degree.

MacKenzie has shot the film on digital video, and perhaps this is due to the story’s origins as a play, but it looks extremely stagy and, well, theatrical. It is one of the least cinematic movies in recent memory, and it is difficult to shake the notion that, no matter how good the acting is, you’re just watching a student film.

Patricia Clarkson is notably good as the Baroness, a woman who believes in love and who is more innocent than she prefers to believe. I also liked Bernard Hepton, an aged British actor, as her butler, Soames. (After the Baroness chucks a stool through a mirror in a fit of rage, Soames deadpans, “Would you like assistance with any other alterations, madam?” You dream of having a servant that loyal.)

There are surprising moments of humor interspersed through the drama, though the comedy — like the seriousness — is underplayed, almost skipped. Sometimes less is more, but in this case, more would have been more: More camera tricks, more music, more stylish editing, more close-ups. The story is OK, but it needs more filmmaker’s tools to really bring it to life.

C+ (1 hr., 36 min.; R, brief nudity, some sexual themes, brief violence.)