Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s A Woman (Une femme de notre temps) could be taken for a statement film: Juliane (Sophie Marceau) is a Parisian chief of police; her contemporary surroundings foreground the visual signposts and audio reports of a mounting Covid-wave; and the score is ostentatiously selected from the work of modernist Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov. These signposts are unusual for Civeyrac, though the film is not devoid of his touches: Juliane, we learn, is a novelist, and her life, dissociated and regimented, is built around the choices she has found it easy to avoid making. In Civeyrac’s best works, this characterization, moving toward tragic isolation, is the gravitational center around which the world (of families, circumstances, and mystical, fated romances) whirls.
But Civeyrac’s direction drifts between incompatible modes. Being this close to the policier (and the milieu of Marceau’s early defining role in Pialat’s Police) reveals how limited Civeyrac is when playing with popular conventions: is Juliane’s department corrupt (and her with it)? Is her husband cheating on her? And will writing about her sister, five years since her passing, transform her troubled fixation on this period of her life? It is this last narrative thread that would seem to engage Civeyrac’s strongest tendencies, as in the multi-layered narration of My Friend Victoria (2014) or Le doux amour des hommes (2002). Juliane, the novelist, imagines herself a heroine, cleanly recusing herself from a potentially violent interrogation, and masochistically enduring her husband’s boring affair. She is distanced from her experience, and Pierre-Hubert Martin’s cinematography plainly outlines this arrangement.
Even when operating at a high level, Civeyrac has never rediscovered the visual invention that Céline Bozon’s photography bestowed on his early-aughts work. Here, the overcast realism maintains the tone set by Marceau’s spartan performance. One never believes that a Civeyrac film is about to become a comedy, but here he matches Juliane’s behavioral avoidance with a narrative of avoidance: A Woman turns away from romance (even when Juliane wields her crossbow with fiendish authority, the realistic mode limits any potential mythic identification), from the invention of literature, and even from the immersive generic interest of an investigation in which Juliane is, at least officially, a participant.
Ten years after their New York introduction, the cinéastes associated with the journal Lettre du cinéma have made little headway, at least in terms of wider visibility: Serge Bozon can play Cannes, but out of competition, Axelle Ropert may win the Prix Jean Vigo, but her latest film will not receive distribution, and Jean-Charles Fitoussi is likely even less well-known than he was a decade ago. Civeyrac’s new film, which feels pared down and isolated in an unproductive way, will not change this. But its unsuccessful approach may still have its roots in the group’s ethos, which prizes the complementary forces of creation and criticism.
Civeyrac was never the foremost critic of the writers for Lettre, but given the circle’s animus toward the films of Arnaud Desplechin, one possible way of seeing A Woman is as a response to Desplechin’s Roubaix, une lumière (2019). Where in that film Roschdy Zem’s police chief is methodical and superior, wholly integrating his pursuits of leisure and narrated philosophy, and Desplechin’s staging of transcripted interrogations theatrically emotive, the plans and fantasies of Marceau’s chief are considered with distant irony. Civeyrac’s conception of the world rarely offers any of his characters relief, but here Juliane’s attempts at moral action are immediately refuted and twisted. Civerac’s instincts as an artist do not lend themselves to outright satire, and one longs for the concentrated mixture of moods in Civeyrac’s best films, rather than this impulsive sketch. But perhaps, despite the star billing, this isn’t an attempt at prestige, but a negative argument, to be delivered and, in contrast to the weighty novel that Juliane never finishes, be done with.
Published as part of Locarno Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 1.