Until 2021, France did not have a set legal age of consent. Then Vanessa Springora wrote Le Consentement in 2020, an autobiographical memoir about her experience being groomed and abused by the famed author Gabriel Matzneff for two long years. She was just 14 when the abuse began; he was 49. He was also a known pedophile, having written about it in his books for decades. The following is a sentence from the memoir Matzneff published in 1985, a sentence that makes one wonder about the extent of depravity in the elite French circles that defend(ed) Matzneff: “Sometimes, I’ll have as many as four boys — from 8 to 14 years old — in my bed at the same time, and I’ll engage in the most exquisite lovemaking with them.” Again, that line comes from a memoir… not a fictional novel. Springora’s book at last inspired a change to the French legal system, implementing an age of consent at 15.
Another Vanessa, Consent‘s director Vanessa Filho (Angel Face), here adapts Springora’s memoir to the film medium. “Lolita from her perspective” could work as a tagline for the film, though maybe that minimizes its non-fiction elements. Nevertheless, Consent is told entirely from Vanessa’s perspective, played by 23-year-old Kim Higelin, who is best known for her work as the daughter in The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon. Filho’s most consequential directorial decision involves vanquishing the double vision of the past and present in Springora’s book; instead of the groomed “real-time” reflections of her past being apotheosized alongside present reflections from adulthood, the film moves chronologically and leaves the bold act of revelation and declarative revulsion for the end.
That’s not to say the film doesn’t condemn or find disgust in pedophilia until its conclusion. Such an interpretation would be a gross misread of basic film grammar, though people will surely fall for the trap of simplicity. Filho and cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman use high contrast and towering low-angle shots to cast Jean-Paul Rouve’s vile Matzneff as even more monstrous than the deplorable words that fall from his mouth. These two camera techniques function to draw visual attention to the power dynamics rather than doing so through a narrative double vision, and separate Consent’s form from romantic filmmaking, a mistake that Wandering, a Japanese film featuring similar subject matter, succumbed to in 2022. The stylistic rather than narrative approach gives way to a more distinctly visual film presentation in a subgenre of #MeToo and abuse films where style and aesthetic intent are often left by the wayside.
To this end, Consent also features top-flight technical work. In particular, there are a memorable handful of fascinating group shots that mirror mob mentality and, in the best of them, the young Vanessa runs into her predator in public after breaking the cycle of abuse. He’s at dinner with the same group of friends that she once dinned with — and there’s a new victim by his side, in a place that she recognizes once used to be her’s. In true horror movie fashion, the entire friend group turns and glares at her, their piercing stares aimed straight into the camera, almost as if to asking the viewer: “Do you feel this brokenness too?”
In another example of the film’s excellence of form, the editor duo of Marion Monestier and Sophie Reine insightfully capture the trapped feeling that more often than not partners with abusive relationships. As Vanessa continually tries to escape her situation and repeatedly makes the decision to leave Matzneff, concealed temporal edits put her right back in that same studio or hotel room with him. Maybe a week has passed or maybe a month; we never know until her age comes up again. The cyclical nature of abuse and the emotional confinement of manipulative and predatory men come together in Consent‘s sharply effective yet unflashy edits.
The film’s performance are equally exceptional. Rouve plasters his character with a notably villainous face, and he’s fantastically sickening in the part of a despicable monster. Higelin likewise gives a fantastic performance in a deeply vulnerable role, one that manages to convey an ever-moving mind even in its silences, and offers a fantastic calling card for her young career so far. Aided by costume designer Carine Sarfati and an excellent makeup department, Higelin quite believably portrays a girl nine years younger than herself at the beginning of the film — aging two years across the runtime — and looks so youthful that familiarity with her age might actually make a difference in a thoughtful viewer’s ability to appreciate the film. Her role requires subtle changes in attitude and mannerisms around her groomer-rapist as she ages, moving with purpose from dismayingly enraptured to entirely trepidant — it’s an essential success in a film that lives or dies on the power of this central performance. Call it soft power against child abuse if you want, but on the strength of its layered performances and shrewd presentational approach, Consent, like the book it is based on, possesses the undeniable power to instigate change.