Column: Daughter, estranged father bond in The Elephant and the Butterfly

Cinemaphile by Joanne Sargent

Ready to rush off on a business trip, and expecting the babysitter at the door, Camille is shocked to see her ex-boyfriend Antoine standing on her doorstep.

Considering she hasn’t seen him for five years, you can’t blame a gal for not reacting well. But when Camille discovers her babysitter is delayed, she must resort to asking her ex if he can help out and temporarily look after her five-year-old daughter Elsa. Although Elsa has no idea who Antoine is – her mother introduces him as one of mommy’s friends – he is actually the girl’s father.

The Elephant and the Butterfly is a heartwarming film from Belgium about an estranged father and daughter getting re-acquainted.

The film’s title refers to a favourite storybook of Elsa’s about two unlikely friends, and it’s hard to ignore the story’s parallels with the father and daughter. When it’s discovered the babysitter can’t make it at all, an ill-prepared Antoine is thrust directly into parenthood. Awkward at first, and with the anxieties of a novice parent, his initially fumbling attempt at fatherhood turns into a quietly nurturing presence. During their three day adventure together, Antoine naturally discovers that the secret of being a parent isn’t anything more than being present and listening to his daughter, and the inquisitive and spirited Elsa shares with him the heady, thrilling experience of being a five-year-old.

Over the 90-minute film we see Elsa and Antoine go from strangers to developing an unexpected bond. Not a lot of time is spent on peripheral offshoots of the story that could have explained some things, although, through glimpses, we do see the different priorities of Antoine and the always busy Camille that may have contributed to the breakdown of their relationship. But the director, Amelie van Elmbt, is committed to concentrate simply on the flourishing relationship between Antoine and Elsa as they play games, read stories, and go to the beach, you know, real stuff. This isn’t a complex movie so don’t expect any twists or turns; it’s just a beautifully told simple story.

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Adorable and gifted Lina Doillon, who plays Elsa, is actually the director’s daughter and much of the movie is seen through her eyes. So natural in her interactions, it’s the young girl’s captivating performance that makes the film compelling. This is a sweet film that proves the best stories, like that of the elephant and the butterfly in the book, are often the purest.

The Elephant and the Butterfly, which is subtitled, shows at 5:00 on Saturday, May 4 at the Salmar Classic Cinema.


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