Credit: Roger Arpajou
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2021 — Dispatch 2: Lovers, Red Soil, Summer of 85

March 12, 2021


A deceptively boilerplate film noir with shades of drab eroticism, Nicole Garcia’s Lovers belies an astonishing sublimation of its cultural and existential milieux. Premiering amidst an especially weak lineup at Venice, and receiving an almost-unanimously negative response, her much-maligned latest originally bore the title of Lisa Redler, named after its unhappy protagonist. Lisa (Stacey Martin), a Parisian student in a hotel school, finds herself caught between two worlds, yet part of neither; at first attached in body and in spirit to Simon (Pierre Niney), a low-level drug dealer, their relationship comes to an abrupt end when he flees the country and abandons her after a client’s accidental overdose. The next three years are elided with a simple dissolve; Lisa is next seen in Mauritius, applying for an adoption alongside her older and wealthier husband, Léo (Benoît Magimel). Her life and circumstances have improved immeasurably — from waiting tables to being waited on — until, per the conventions of noir, who else shows up by way of the Indian Ocean as a tour guide but Simon himself?

Much has been made, critically, of Garcia’s penchant for exaggerated coincidences and suffocating greyscale, whose respective qualities of anti-realism and anti-romanticism run counter to most contemporary expectations of the genre. And yet, like Benoît Jacquot’s equally illuminating, and hence unpopular, Suzanna Andler, also centered around a woman in crisis, Lovers effaces the performative intricacies of its peers to reveal an insatiable violence at the heart of modern love. Transplanted from the uncertainties of youth and working-class ennui onto a stratum of older men and their mysterious public personas, Lisa finds herself unable to extricate her purpose and passions from a gaping sense of inadequacy, one primarily defined in bourgeois terms. The days pass and whittle away whatever affection she might have once possessed for Léo, while offering her the tantalizing prospect of reuniting with Simon; neither lover, however, proves eternal in the face of ephemeral plans and pleasures.

Breezily straddling the years and continents, Lovers addresses the age-old disparities of class and social backgrounds with newfound abstraction. The film’s opening shot, of Lisa and Simon locked in naked embrace, hints through the pearly contours of their flesh at a radiant, immortal sanctity between soulmates. This radiance soon dissipates, making way for Garcia’s stifling psychological opacity that speaks, where lesser filmmakers crumble, to her uncompromising directorial strength. Her characters resemble the pawns of a chess game, but their symbolic roles are imbued with an acute empathy sidelined by most in favor of more dialectical concerns: the reunion between Lisa and Simon contains a fraught poignancy mirrored in Léo’s knowing cynicism which, in spite of his boorish affluence, he tries his best to mitigate. For a film this inured to the pessimism of a world in which love and money can’t quite buy each other, Lovers masterfully subsumes its worldly insights under a tragically tender story of both.

Writer: Morris Yang

Credit: Les films VELVET / Les films du FLEUVE

Red Soil

Loosely based on actual events, Farid Bentoumi’s Red Soil follows the efforts of Nour Hamadi (Zita Hanrot) as she attempts to reveal dangerous working conditions and environmental pollution at a chemical refinery in the south of France. It’s a familiar, even boilerplate story about the dangers of becoming a whistleblower — think Dark Waters meets Erin Brockovich — bolstered by fine performances and Bentoumi’s attention to the complicated web of influences that often keep otherwise good people from doing the right thing. Nour is a former ER nurse, dismissed from the hospital after an accidental oversight left a patient dead. Her father Slimane (the great Sami Bouajila) gets her a job at the local refinery, where he has worked for 30 years, climbing the ranks and raising a family in the surrounding small-town community. Bentoumi and co-writer Samuel Doux deftly observe the workings of this closely knitted enclave, where people’s sense of self is intertwined with, even inseparable from, their jobs, and the ways in which these kinds of large-scale industrial plants that employ hundreds of people envelope both micro and macro political agendas. Slimane, nicknamed Slim by friends and family, believes in unions and campaigns for the local Green Party candidate, occasionally leading to internecine fighting with co-workers who want to vote conservative (or fascist, as Slimane makes clear). Both groups want the plant to prosper, but can’t agree on how to achieve it.

Into this heated environment comes Nour, who, in the midst of doing standard check-ups and physicals on workers, discovers that many of them have similar medical issues, including worrisome breathing problems. Further digging reveals that some of these men have decades-long gaps in their medical history, and that most worked at a remote dumping ground in the ’90s before being transferred to the refinery. Eventually, Nour is given the whole sordid history of corporate malfeasance by an intrepid local journalist named Emma (Céline Sallette), and they travel to the site, referred to as “the lake,” to find a devastated patch of forest full of dangerous waste. Of course, the refinery spent years dumping pollutants into “the lake” and has made every effort to paper over its dubious past actions. Complicating matters is that the refinery represents the totality of the local economy, and has since been issued legitimacy by the government, allowing it to now legally bury its waste in deep ravines. The company line is clear — without the ability to dump waste somewhere, the refinery will close, taking jobs and people’s livelihoods with it. These are complicated issues, and the film shines while navigating them, investing environmental justice with these personal, ground-level perspectives. Less successful is the dutiful fulfillment of genre-mandated dramatic beats, as Red Soil eventually rushes towards its conclusion and temporarily transforms into an uninteresting eco-thriller. Co-produced by the Dardenne brothers (and featuring Dardenne regular Olivier Gourmet in a small supporting role), Red Soil would have benefited from adopting some of the brother’s visceral style and penchant for more elusive, elliptical storytelling. Ultimately, the film is one of those modest successes that is likely preaching to the choir, and it proves that the lives of ordinary people navigating our extraordinary present are endlessly more fascinating than didacticism, no matter how well-intentioned.

Writer: Daniel Gorman

A l’abordage!

One of a number of Rohmer riffs making the festival rounds currently, À l’abordage! is also the latest film from Guillaume Brac, a director whose work just so happens to be oft-compared to that of the late French auteur. But Brac’s film isn’t simple mimicry, and, indeed, he finds a way to translate a Rohmerian sorting of narrative and sense of pacing into a mild, modern-day comedy with humor and conflict that feel genuinely contemporary. In fact, À l’abordage! is sort of a savvy synthesis of that comedic style with bawdier road trip material more associated with recent pop cinema. 

The film begins on a scene that will be complicated and undermined as the film progresses— a dreamy, impressionistic sequence detailing a brief summer romance between Felix (Éric Nantchouang) and Alma (Asma Messaoudene), two young students crossing paths while in transit to other parts of France. The film then becomes about Felix’s pursuit of Alma, who he decides to intercept in the South of France where she’s vacationing with family, enlisting his friend Chérif (Salif Cissé) and a dude on a rideshare app (Édouard Sulpice) to help him make the trek. These early moments of male bonding and road trip hijinks aren’t all that funny or distinctive, but Brac rewards the audience with an amusing narrative bait and switch that successfully disrupts and splinters the plot.

Brac and co-screenwriter Catherine Paillé’s script dabbles in tropes and archetypes, but it also finds several sharp ways to interrogate them, placing them in contrast to improvised performances and autobiographical details incorporated from the actors’ own lives. That said, À l’abordage!‘s meandering pace and wandering focus mean that it can fall into tangents less interesting than others, and unconsciously stumble back into cliché and tedious bro humor. Not totally damning by any means, but the experience of watching Brac’s film isn’t quite as breezy as it would appear to be, wavering between inspired moments of genuine, laugh-out-loud comedy — an exchange between a tax lawyer and the man rejecting her advances stands out — and less thoughtful material that sometimes threatens to undermine the film’s larger critique of the narrative realm it’s working in. Still, À l’abordage! is more vibrant than not, with a rhythm all its own, and while it certainly falters and allows its attention to drift, Brac and his cast are generally able to pull the proceedings back on course.

Writer: M.G. Mailloux

Credit: Music Box Films

Summer of 85

The trailer for Summer of 85, the latest from Cannes perennial François Ozon, makes the film look something like Call Me By Your Name (2017) transposed to the crime-thriller key of René Clément’s Purple Noon (1960) — a fairly intriguing proposition in itself. When first introduced, angel-faced Alexis (Félix Lefebvre), a working-class teen who lives on the coast of Normandy, is spending the afternoon on his friend’s boat, though the sight of an approaching storm soon causes him to panic and capsize. Fortunately, debonair David Gorman (Benjamin Voisin) — an 18-year-old who later displays a taste for danger and a talent for dissembling — swiftly sails to his rescue, after which the two strike up a friendship and, eventually, a covert romance. All this is conveyed in extended, past-tense flashbacks, since the film periodically pulls back to the present, where David is dead and Alexis is being investigated for some crime. Naturally, Ozon plays coy with both the nature of and the circumstances surrounding each, but here, he has a face-saving justification: the story framework is being provided by none other than Alexis, a promising literature student who, at the encouragement of his teacher (Melvil Poupaud), purges his remembrances into fervid prose. Because how else could this torrid summer’s tale possibly be told.

Apart from a reference to Ozon’s own 1996 short A Summer Dress, the result is about what you’d expect given the basic setup and the storytelling verve of an angsty teen with literary aspirations. Alexis’ blissful recollections are everywhere shadowed by the threat of death, and when things go south, as they inevitably must, Summer of 85 broaches the familiar matters of romantic and creative projection. For the film’s unsophisticated narrative and patently ridiculous ending, Ozon can perhaps share the blame with British author Aidan Chambers, who wrote the 1982 young adult novel, Dance On My Grave, on which Summer of 85 is based. The perfunctory treatment of Alexis’ social world and class standing, however, falls squarely on the filmmaker. But in this, as in everything else, Ozon has a potential out: Summer of 85 ends on yet another boat ride, with Alexis now musing meaningfully on a desire to “escape [his] own story,” redoubling the possibility of imaginative distortion on his part, and plausibly, if glibly accounting for the selective realization of his home life. The impression of this final fillip, though, is not so much of a daring postmodern flourish as of a merely careless, neglectful gesture. In rendering Chambers’ source novel as a weightless trifle, Ozon has ensured that his own audience remains out at sea. [Originally published as part of TIFF 2020 — Dispatch 2.]

Writer: Lawrence Garcia

Little Girl

In the opening scene of Sébastien Lifshitz’s latest documentary feature, Little Girl, there is a shot which the French director visually encapsulates and expresses the film’s core interest. A little boy, named Sasha, is looking into a mirror while dressing himself up like a girl, an accentuation of his life’s duality — the truth of his interiority at tension with his external delusive reflection. From this earliest stage in the film, the documentary makes clear its interest in the issue of gender dysphoria, and while many films have attempted a sincere inspection of this topic, what gives Little Girl some bit of novelty is that far fewer have dealt with someone of such a young age questioning gender identity. It is clear from the beginning that Sasha is literally a little girl imprisoned by the corporeal constraints of a boy’s body, but unfortunately the film does not build on its early promise, content to present to a repetitious litany of “explanations.”

For most of its runtime, the film pushes Sasha aside and out of focus, and instead inundates itself with parental interviews — specifically, with the mother — or merely spends time accompanying the family into clinical psychiatry sessions. Lifshitz remains too straightforward, his bland, emotion-forward approach leaves little ambiguity to interrogate — the overuse of close-ups provides even visual evidence of this failure. It is understandable that Lifshitz intends his camera to remain close to his human subjects, but it deprives the audience from the context of observation, bearing little witness to Sasha’s life in broader focus. Not all such moments are absent in the film — the ballet classroom scene, some interludes of domesticity, and one at the beach are a few affecting inclusions. But the final (more or less cliché) scene of the film shows lovely little Sasha dancing alone and silently, dressed as a girl with two fake pink butterfly wings tied to her back. This image also proves a fitting metaphor for Lifshitz’s effort: a film that tries to fly but which remains firmly planted to the ground. [Originally published as part of Berlin International Film Festival 2020 — Dispatch 4.]

Writer: Ayeen Forootan