The Girl From Nowhere (La fille de nulle part, France 2012)

Jean-Claude Brisseau as Michel and Virginie Legeayas Dora

Jean-Claude Brisseau as Michel and Virginie Legeay as Dora

Here is a film that had both Variety and Screendaily railing against its pretensions in the face of a prestige prize win – the Golden Leopard at Locarno. Writer-director – and in this instance, leading man – Jean-Claude Brisseau is an auteur of the ‘second wave’ of French directors after Godard and co. Born in 1944 he began to direct in the 1970s but is generally known for just two titles, Celine (1992), nominated for a prize at Berlin and Secret Things (2002) which Cahiers du cinéma selected as its film of the year alongside Kiarostami’s Ten. Secret Things was an ‘erotic thriller’ and Brisseau was later fined and given a suspended sentence for sexual harassment of two of the women he auditioned for the film. He then released a film with a narrative based around a similar scenario to that which brought about the prosecution. This might explain why, when he eventually turned away from erotic narratives, he made a low-budget film using his own savings (around £50,000) which was immediately in the black after its Locarno win since the prize money eclipsed the budget.

Fans of Secret Things (which even Roger Ebert reviewed as an enjoyable and well-made sex film) will find that although there are a couple of nude scenes in The Girl From Nowhere, the narrative does not develop as a cynical viewer might expect given the pairing of an old man and a young girl. Michel (played by the director) is a retired maths teacher who lives alone after his wife’s death 29 years earlier. He occupies a spacious Paris apartment he inherited via his wife’s wealthy family (Brisseau’s own flat – so you get to see his tastes in books and films). He spends his time reading and watching films and writing a book questioning philosophical and religious beliefs. Disturbed by a commotion in the stairwell outside his apartment one day he discovers a young woman being beaten up by a man who then runs off. He takes the young woman into his apartment. She is clearly injured but refuses both doctor and police. He decides to look after her until she recovers, but then finds out that he needs her – specifically to help him with his book, but also because she reminds him of his past.

The low-budget keeps the action restricted more or less to the apartment and the surrounding streets and much of the film comprises conversations between the two principals. If you don’t like talky French flicks this may well put you off. Personally I found both characters interesting and engaging. The digital camerawork by David Chambille using mostly available light is accomplished and presented in 16:9 framings. The music track is used sparingly and overall this is a well-made little film. Brisseau has taught film at the main French film school, FEMIS and on a technical level the film is a good advertisement for the possibilities of low-budget films. The only time I was really conscious of the lack of budget was when the plot requires an outside shot to be still without wind – but the wind in the background is clearly visible ruffling hair etc. The other facet of the film that made Variety and Screendaily so irate appears to be the fact that Brisseau is not a professional actor. This never occurred to me watching the film. I thought both principals were fine. Virginie Legeay clearly knows the director well since she was at FEMIS and she worked with him on his 2006 film The Exterminating Angels – the one based on his legal problems. On that film and this one she is also credited as Assistant Director.

So what goes on between the old man and the young girl? I won’t spoil the narrative pleasures, only reveal that there are moments of ‘paranormal’ activity – quite well presented and sometimes quite disturbing. It’s also noticeable that Legeay’s character is called ‘Dora’, famously one of Freud’s case studies. Michel is reading Freud (but ‘the girl’ does not exhibit the same behaviour as Freud’s Dora). In general thematic terms, the conversation is about loneliness, memory, dealing with growing old, romance and relationships – issues which the two characters can discuss and possibly offer forms of support to each other.

5579303_origThere are two reasons why I would recommend this film. First, it is a well-made film with intelligent and interesting characters that certainly kept my interest. The paranormal incidents added to the intrigue. Second, the whole venture challenges the role of film critics. What makes a film ‘pretentious’? For that matter what makes for ‘good acting’? Is it indulgence to cast yourself in a role or simply pragmatic if you don’t have the funds to pay an actor? Is ‘cod philosophy’ a bad thing in constructing a film narrative? You can watch the film yourself and decide.

The Girl From Nowhere toured the UK and US as part of the French Cinema export programme ‘Rendezvous With French Cinema 2013’ but it hasn’t got a UK cinema release. Instead a DVD is released by Matchbox on July 8. The distributor has gone, perhaps unsurprisingly, for a cover emphasising the eroticism angle, but this is misleading about the narrative as a whole. The image refers to one of the ‘paranormal’ moments in the narrative.

The DVD is available from Amazon and other online retailers.




  1. des1967

    I really enjoyed this film, much more than I expected to. I agree with Roy that the acting is more than adequate – I wouldn’t have known they weren’t professional actors had I not read his blog. As for the consequences of a miniscule budget, I didn’t notice the instance Roy refers to about the wind not behaving as it might if the director had been given more time but I did notice some problems with the moving table in the levitation scene and some weaknesses on the soundtrack in the exterior scenes near the end. And the scene where Michel nearly gets knocked down in the street looked under-rehearsed.

    What I found I liked about the film was the relationship between the two lead characters, Michel and Dora (the shift from the formal “vous” [you] to the more intimate “tu” – a key moment – is significantly instigated by Dora). Another feature I liked was the spooky, uncanny atmosphere when they upped the ante with the paranormal aspect (which, I admit, freaked me out for a few minutes). I can see where some critics are coming from with the “cod philosophy” criticism but it’s not the kind of film that is damaged by it. The “philosophy” is more of a pretext or a context that put into relief the relationship between Michel and Dora and an exploration of the key themes Roy referred to – growing old, romance, coming to terms with the death of a loved one.

    A final point. Roy said music was used sparingly but the only music I recall (though the credits refer to a couple of other pieces), and played repeatedly and at the most intense moments in the film, was the fourth movement of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Now I’m no specialist in symphonic music in general and Mahler in particular, but I’m conscious of its context and connotations. It’s a kind of resurrection for the composer linked to his renewed love for his wife, the remarkable Alma (20 years his junior), after he brushed with death due to an internal haemorrhage. This relates in a way to Michel’s obsessive memory of his wife is a key theme. (I’m basing this not on any familiarity with the biographies of Alma Mahler but on Ken Russell’s exuberant but not always accurate 1974 biopic of the composer). But this piece of music has effectively been colonialised (at least for film fans) by Visconti in his adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1971) where the music is associated with death. I’m not sure exactly how Brisseau was using this music but as a cinephile as well as a cineaste he much have been aware that audiences would read it through the prism of Visconti’s film. Any ideas, Roy (or anyone)?


    • Roy Stafford

      Sorry to disappoint but classical music is one aspect of my philistinism. And Death in Venice is always a film I’ve tended to avoid, possibly because of all the fuss at the time of its release. I’m ashamed to say that I probably heard/’read’ the use of Mahler’s music as connoting feelings such as sadness etc. I’m glad you enjoyed the film though!


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