The Ideal Palace (‘L’Incroyable Histoire du Facteur Cheval’)

DRAMA; 1hr 45min (French with subtitles)

STARRING: Jacques Gamblin, Laetitia Casta

Body of work: Gamblin

In one fell swoop, country postman Joseph-Ferdinand Cheval (Gamblin, inhabiting decades with crusty zest) loses the two people he values in director Nils Tavernier’s attentive re-telling of a stranger-than, real-life history. After his wife dies and their young son is spirited away to live with relatives, Joseph is left profoundly alone. He is taciturn and hermitic—far easier to pull off in 1873—but his reticence is in no way uncaring, and as he continues to do over the years, Joseph makes it his business to re-build.


When he encounters widow Philomène (a winsome Casta), who is young, shapely and knows her uncomplaining way around a harsh, southeast France winter, a spark is lit (subdued, admittedly, as is the way of things, but lit and lit for life). They marry and Philomène gives birth to baby Alice, who her private and inarticulate father will come to adore as fiercely as it’s humanly possible to do.


It is for his little girl that Joseph single-handedly and with no training begins to build a palace, inspired by his passion for beauty, enlivened by “the trees, the wind and the birds” and crafted predominantly from the rocks and stones of the land around him. From these humble and highly unlikely beginnings, the divine lunacy of his fantastical creation will take him 33 years to complete, be heralded as “naïve architecture” by those in the know and leave everyone who sees it filled with an awe that far eclipses the unassuming man who willed the rococo flourishes into being.


Joseph’s quixotic task is no gift-wrapped bonbon. Death and grief are recurring motifs, along with his will to overcome them through the brute force of resolute love. His devotion to his little family is reinforced year by year and stone by stone with a resolve that has no need for words.