The mid-midlife crisis genre has always been a bit of a mixed bag, as most of the stories revolve around mopey twenty-somethings whose severe navel-gazing inspires fits of exaggerated eye rolls and loud sighs in even the most patient viewers. It’s tough to imagine an individual over the age of 30 who hasn’t muttered the words “Grow the fuck up” during a screening of something like Garden State or Elizabethtown, as they should. Zero Fucks Given isn’t necessarily immune to such exclamatories, but it does at least offer a novel spin on the standard proceedings, namely fixing its focus on how jobs can strip us of our humanity in ways both subtle and profound. Cassandre (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is a flight attendant for a budget airline who spends her days being berated by passengers and hawking glorified Amway products. When not working 16+ hour days, she seeks escape in binge drinking, recreational drug use, and random Tinder hook-ups. Directors Emmanuel Marre and Julie Lecoustre, making their feature-film debuts, highlight the soul-crushing mundanity of Cassandre’s life, with each day seemingly interchangeable from the next, a blur of airport tarmacs, mini bottles of vodka, whiny customers, and Instagram photo sessions. A job that requires zero attachments and an utter lack of emotion, it soon becomes clear that these very attributes have come to define every aspect of Cassandre’s existence, although cracks are beginning to show in the façade, whether it be a kind gesture to a passenger anxious over an upcoming medical procedure or Cassandre’s insistence on staying in the warm embrace of a one night stand for a few minutes longer. But once Cassandre moves back home for an extended stay after a work suspension, as such plots go, she is forced to confront ghosts from a past she has longed to escape, and the realization that her current predicament might be more than a bit self-inflicted.
There’s something both easily universal and poignant in the film’s portrait of the toxicity inherent within corporate employment, with the position of flight attendant proving an inspired choice, a dead-eyed servant whose forfeiture of an outside life is all but demanded. At one point, Cassandre participates in a training seminar in which she must smile for 30 seconds straight, chastised by management for showing the smallest signs of genuine human emotion. Later in the film, she takes part in a job interview that is the very definition of degradation, yet it’s all conducted in such a matter-of-fact manner that its abhorrence seems borderline innocuous, just another stepping stone toward both a promotion and a better life. It’s on the strength of these presentations that the film’s dead mother stuff feels especially grating. Sure, it affords motivation for why Cassandre would seek out such work, but it also robs the film of its thematic universality, which is certainly more important to the film’s success than any narrative or character-level veracity. For most people, career choices aren’t made on the heels of personal tragedy, and this plot filip does more to undermine the film’s messaging than it does to invigorate any deeper pathology (did I already mention Garden State)? It doesn’t help that Marre and Lecoustre offer nothing in the way of visual flair, which is partially by design, but it’s an approach that frustrates, especially in the film’s first hour; the movie hits the same note so many times it could be mistaken for an out-of-tune piano. As everyone knows, Exarchopoulos has presence to spare, a talented actress who deserves at least a lateral career to the one her Blue Is the Warmest Color co-star Lea Seydoux is currently enjoying; few working actresses are better as conveying so much in a single glance, her features rife with conflicting emotions and hidden facets. She alone makes Zero Fucks Given worth watching even as the surrounding film occasionally lets her down. Still, the sum is worth more than a couple of fucks, so credit where credit is due.
Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 4.