Tagged: My French Film Festival

You Deserve a Lover (Tu mérites un amour, France 2019)

Lila (right) and her girlfriends

This film surprised me as I didn’t at first recognise the writer-director Hafsia Herzi who also plays the lead role in this her first fiction feature. The film played at the Cannes Film Festival where it was nominated for the ‘First Film’ prize. I watched it via My French Film Festival but it also appears to be available on various streamers and rental/DVD sites in the UK.

I realised quite quickly that I’d seen Ms Herzi in her first role as the young daughter of the lead character in Abdellatif Kechiche’s film Couscous (La graine et le mulet, France 2007). Since then she has built up a strong profile as an actor and now in her early thirties she has become a features director (she made a short film in 2014). Her film is quite difficult to categorise. It’s a film about emotional and sexual relationships in the 21st century. It’s not a romance, though it features several of the elements of a romance. Its ending is non-committal and that seems right. Herzi plays Lila, a Parisian woman whose relationship with Rémi (Jérémie Laheurte) has just ended, or at least has come to a point of separation. But when the film opens Lila is outside Rémi’s apartment block aiming to confront him for sleeping with another woman. Lila is finding it difficult to let go. A little later Rémi will announce that he is going on holiday in Bolivia for three weeks to ‘sort himself out’. Lila has friends who will support her and she is soon back in the swing of things, enjoying a number of one night stands, some of which are enjoyable, others not so much.

The young photographer (Anthony Bajon)

At one point Lila meets a younger man who wants to photograph her rather than make love to her and this appears to be a relationship she can really enjoy. But soon Rémi will be back from Bolivia. What will he do? Will Lila be completely over him? It doesn’t sound much of a narrative outline and I was quite surprised that I found the film easy to watch and I remained engaged throughout. I think there are several reasons why the film works. One is Hafsia Herzi herself as an actor and how she is presented on screen. The cinematographer Jérémie Attard is relatively inexperienced and this was his first feature. He has worked on a film for Abdellatif Kechiche and that shared experience with Hafsia Herzi seems to have influenced the overall approach to his handheld camerawork which features long shots and big close-ups of Lila. There are several sexual encounters but in most cases we see only the before and after. We do see quite a few meals which I like and it made me warm to Lila.

Advice about her love life is given to Lila by Ali as he eats his chocolate cereal

There are few references to Lila’s ethnicity but her decision to consult a ‘celebrity marabout‘ provides a surprising comic interlude. Lila’s friends are mostly other young women and Ali, a young gay man played by Djanis Bouzyani who provides the energy for several scenes. I’ve read some interesting commentaries on the film including one that suggests the film’s ‘naturalness’ is liberating and I certainly felt that I had been offered an entertaining glimpse into the world of 30 something young women in France. I’d go with the young Polish photographer Lila, he seems more grown up than most of the other guys.

Camille (France 2019)

Camille Lepage in the midst of the action

This is a very difficult film to write about because of its formal qualities, poised between documentary re-enactment and fiction feature, and because of its generic qualities as part biopic, part ‘journalist in war zone’ feel. It is true story about a young woman who pursued her dream and paid with her life. Finally its appearance in 2021 as part of My French Film Festival, after release in France in October 2019, coincides with news stories suggesting French unease about the calls for re-assessing imperialism and colonialism.

Background

Camille Lepage was a young French freelance photographer aged 25 when she travelled to the Central African Republic in October 2013. Her first major African reportage had been carried out in South Sudan and she had already had her images used by major newspapers and other agencies. She spent her time in CAR meeting students, and young people generally, in the capital Bangui and when the civil war in the country started to get close to the capital she teamed up with a group of seasoned European journalists working for major outlets and photographed some of the action and its aftermath. At this point it was the Séléka, a Muslim rebel force that was attacking the capital. Intervention by French forces was expected and duly arrived. Camille went home to France for Christmas but was determined to return to Bangui, by which time the Christians had formed a new militia known as the ‘Anti-balaka’ and they were killing Muslims. Camille learned that the Anti-balaka were moving North from the capital towards the border with Cameroon. She joined their convoy and was killed instantly during an ambush. (This isn’t a spoiler, we learn of her death in the opening sequence.)

The view from a French military vehicle as a group of Anti-balaka approach

CAR is one of the poorest countries on earth. It has a low population density as a relatively large country with less than 5 million people but much of it is savannah and potentially productive and it also has some valuable mineral deposits with diamonds as the major export. Why is the country so poor and how does a civil war seemingly break out on religious difference lines when the Christian population is nearly 90%? I don’t know the answers to these questions but the country has had a difficult history since its ‘independence’, especially during the ‘Empire’ of Jean-Bédel Bokassa from 1966-79. Like several other countries in Central Africa that were created after the land grab by European powers in the late 19th century, CAR has little infrastructure and little contact with the outside world – except with France. Even the Chinese seem to be ignoring the country. The only evidence of an outside world comes via the trucks and motorbikes and the ubiquitous European football shirts.

Camille approaches the Anti-balaka alone. The Union Jack hat is an incongruous image – the football jerseys are Spanish or German

The filmmakers

Camille is the second fiction feature by director Boris Lojkine after his initial documentaries made in Vietnam. His first fiction film, Hope (2014) followed a young Nigerian woman and a young Cameroon man attempting to reach the Mediterranean after crossing the Sahara. Lojkine’s documentary experience seems to still be central to his work. Hope was shot by Elin Kirschfink and she also shot Camille. The new film is presented in a boxy 1:1.50 ratio caught between Academy (1.37:1) and the traditional French widescreen 1.66:1. The ratio derives from Lojkine’s decision to use ‘real’ photographs by Camille Lepage which are inserted at various points, freezing the action. Camille is played by Nina Meurisse, who does indeed convincingly represent the Camille we see in photographs shown at the end of the film. There are a couple of well-known French actors among the journalists (Bruno Todeschini and Grégoire Colin) and the photojournalist Michael Zumstein plays himself in the film – and was able to advise Lojkine and the rest of the crew. The African cast was all local and non-professional. Lojkine in the Press Notes tells us that he set up documentary workshops in Bangui and mentored ten young filmmakers who then became crew members on the shoot.

Camille makes contact with local young people (Grégoire Colin and Bruno Todeschini are walking behind portraying journalists)

Camille’s story was ‘narrativised’ by Lojkine who created three individual characters among the students that she meets. This enables aspects of Camille’s story to be outlined more clearly through her relationships, i.e. in smuggling a character past a militia group or joining a family in mourning. The film certainly develops a convincing realist aesthetic, so ‘real’ in fact that I found it difficult to watch at times.

How to respond?

I’m not sure what I can say about the film. On one level it is a significant achievement in filmmaking with high quality photography and editing and strong performances. The ‘realism’ effects of the re-construction of events is very strong. The genre narrative of ‘journalist in a war zone’ is developed in two ways, firstly when Camille joins the experienced journalists in Bangui and travels with them to photograph the raids close to the city and secondly when she is back in France, trying to get a commission from a newspaper or discussing/defending her actions when quizzed by family and friends. Much of the time, however, Camille is on her own (i.e. not with other journalists) when she visits the militias or the families who have lost relatives in the civil war. In these circumstances we try to understand what she hopes to achieve. Reflecting on this later, I’m reminded of Michael Winterbottom’s film Welcome to Sarajevo (UK-US 1997) and that element of several other journalism films which responds to the need for the individual to ‘do something’ like smuggle a refugee out of a war zone. Often Camille shows her genuine concern and her ability to find a means of both communicating and connecting with the people she meets. But this only goes so far and some of them eventually repel her. She believes in her journalistic purpose and that someone must record these shocking events, but many of her photos will not be seen. She lacks any kind of institutional support or indeed any one to ‘watch her back’. Her death in the circumstances seems inevitable.

The stills photographer presents Camille in sharp focus, but Leila , an important character in the story is blurred in the shallow focus

The Civil War which started in 2012 is still not over eight years later despite the French military presence at various times. CAR seems similar to Chad and some of the other countries in the region – Sudan/South Sudan and the DRC. The European colonial boundaries established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries don’t reflect the many ways in which local communities have identities. French policies in the region are difficult to understand but they don’t seem to be working in terms  of military interventions and trade relations. Stories like this definitely need to be told and young, compassionate journalists like Camille Lepage could be among those opening up the debates, but perhaps alongside African journalists? This film, as a biopic, places Camille centre stage in almost every shot. An African film might tell different stories. I do wonder if countries like CAR would benefit more by opening up to neighbours rather than remaining attached to the ex-colonial power. It would be good to see the (post)-colonial situation explored by African filmmakers.

Adolescentes (France 2019)

Anaïs in front, Emma behind

Adolescentes represented a real challenge for this reviewer. It’s twenty-five years since I last had any real contact with teenagers on a one to one basis. Could I cope with over two hours of exploring the lives of two girls growing up in Central France from the ages of 13 to 18, especially when I have managed to avoid most of the ‘reality TV’ type programming which this threatened to resemble? Well, I did survive the experience and I hope I can give a critically distanced appraisal of the film which I enjoyed very much in parts even if some aspects seemed questionable.

The film is described as a ‘documentary’ and in the sense that it records moments in the lives of the two selected teenagers it is certainly a documentary record. On the other hand, a link to the Griersonian definition of ‘a creative treatment of actuality’ seems a little more doubtful. The reality TV mode is usually developed towards an entertainment function in which we are asked to become involved in narratives about winners and losers. That isn’t the case here even if the film is inevitably ‘narrativised’ by the selection of ‘moments’ when judgements are made. Director Sébastien Lifshitz made some interesting decisions such as opting for a CinemaScope ratio and commissioning music from Claire Denis collaborators Tindersticks which help the film to feel more like a fiction feature. The overall format is not original and is perhaps best known via the television films of the Up‘ series in which cameras have revisited a group of characters every seven years since 1963. However, that series is much more obviously a long term project in which the subjects speak to camera  and respond to questions. Lifshitz simply ‘observed’ his two participants during short periods of two or three days selected to cover the main aspects of their lives over five years.

Brive has cold winters . . .

The two subjects of the documentary are Anaïs and Emma, best friends attending the same middle school in the small city of Brive in South Central France, with Limoges as the nearest major centre. Lifshitz wanted to find a community outside Paris and he suggests that Brive was interesting partly because of its distinct seasons – hot summers and cold winters. Originally he had thought of following a boy but soon became convinced that a girl would be more interesting because, as many teachers and others told him, girls in France have changed much more in the last fifteen years. He actually found two girls in the same school. He did worry that it might not be appropriate for a man to follow the lives of teenage girls so closely but they and, surprisingly perhaps, their parents seemed happy to participate – more on this later. The film covers the years 2013 to 2018 and includes some reactions to the major events in France during the period (including the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan and the election of President Macron). The girls were born in 2000 so they represent the new generation of the 21st century.

Shifitz is concerned to ‘show and not tell’, so for those of us outside France, aspects of the French education system do need a little explanation. As far as I can work out, Anaïs and Emma attend the same middle school but then make different choices at 15 which mean they attend different high schools and will make different decisions again after taking the baccalauréat at 18. Anaïs is from a working-class family. She has a difficult family life because her mother is hospitalised a couple of times and she has two brothers, one of whom needs care. She has some issues with her weight but she’s an attractive and sociable young woman who works hard when she wants to and does well in her vocational bac (known as a CAP or Certificat d’aptitude professionnelle). Emma is more conventionally attractive and comes from a wealthier, professional family. Her mother is a tax inspector and her father is a sales executive who seems to travel a great deal. Emma has a difficult relationship with her mother and that may be one reason she lacks self-confidence. She opts for a ‘professional bac‘, hoping for a place in a film school – previously she thought about becoming a singer. Don’t leap to any conclusions about the choices the girls make. As a teacher of vocational education I was pleased by the decision Anaïs made and how she handled herself in high school. I don’t think my outline sketch ‘spoils’ the documentary narrative. There are many other incidents and narrative subtexts in the film and I certainly found it an engaging watch.

There are more close-ups in the second half of the film. In the summer by the pool . . .

The questions that arise are, not surprisingly, about some of the more intimate situations into which the camera intrudes. There are two specific questions. The first is about the conversations between the two girls and with their peers (the other girls). They talk about how they are approaching losing their virginity and, since they spend summers by the pool in their bikinis they talk about their bodies. In the Press Notes Sébastien Lifshitz says that at first he covered the girls’ interactions mainly in long shots but later he felt that he could use a long lens to get much closer to his subjects – with their permission. This means that as well as close-ups of their heads and shoulders we also have close-up images of thighs when the girls discuss their ‘stretch marks’ from their rapid growth as teenagers. It did make me wonder how the girls would respond when they saw these shots on a cinema screen. Lifshitz does tell us that they first giggled at seeing themselves but then he said:

I believe that the film was for them a cold revealing mirror which made them realise things about themselves. But the most important thing for me was that they recognised themselves in it. Adolescence is a continent both dark and sunny. (My approximate translation of the original French.)

He also reveals that Emma spoke about seeing herself arguing with her mother and wondered if she (Emma) was really like that. This leads me to my second question which is really at the root of my objection to much of the ‘reality TV’ type of narrative. I feel uncomfortable commenting on how the parents behave in this film and I do wonder how Lifshitz made decisions about what to include. I also wonder how the parents themselves came to agree to allow his camera in to the arguments they had with their children. We all tend to regret the way we behave in arguments sometimes but we don’t then get to see ourselves arguing on a cinema screen. Lifshitz states elsewhere in the Press Notes that of course he is aware of the camera becoming an instrument that mediates behaviour but then says that the girls in particular seemed to forget about it completely. As a spectator it did seem to me that scenes flowed so naturally that it was easy to feel that I was watching a fiction performed by non-professionals who had been well briefed. The teachers in the classrooms are not named so I do feel able to say that for all its good qualities, I do feel that the school scenes demonstrate the conservative/traditional pedagogy I’ve seen in other French films set in schools. It’s all ‘talk and chalk’ with students in rows of desks and teachers standing at the front. Do they ever try group work or a more democratic open discussion arena? Mind you we may have lost all those progressive ideas in English education after Michael Gove and his vandals’ attacks on the methods I and my colleagues used to use.

I’m certainly glad I watched Adolescentes. I’m still not sure about the ethics of the film but these seemed like two sensible young women and I hope they have succeeded in their further studies even in the face of the current pandemic. The narrative ends in Autumn 2018. The film is technically very good with camerawork by Paul Guilhaume and Antoine Parouty and editing by Tina Baz providing exactly what is needed by Sébastien Lifshitz. I didn’t really notice the music but in this context I think that means it worked in harmony with the other elements. Adolescentes is still streaming as part of My French Film Festival. Here is the trailer (no subtitles) from Unifrance.

Josep (France 2020)

Josep was a real treat for me. Showing in My French Film Festival this is a form of animation not unlike last year’s The Swallows of Kaboul (France-Luxembourg 2019) in representing the humanity found in the midst of horror. I realise that my favourite form of animation is ‘drawn’, followed by stop motion. This is why I generally go for Japanese or French drawn forms with a side order of Aardman. I’ve lost interest in most Hollywood animations. But I should warn you that the three of the reviews in English of Josep that I found expressed doubts about the drawing style (while praising the content).

The grandfather introduces the narrative to his graqndsson who responds by offering his sketchbook to the old man . . .

The ‘Josep’ of the title is Josep Bartolí, the Catalan ‘draftsman and caricaturist’ who fought the Francoist rebels in the Spanish Civil War, finally escaped to Mexico and had an affair with the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, before being blacklisted in the US as a communist. Given the dramatic events of his life it’s amazing that he survived into his mid-80s. This animation, which is similar in conception to Maus by Art Spiegelman and Persepolis (France-US 2007) by Marjane Satrapi (which was a graphic novel before becoming a film), is narrated in flashbacks by an old man trying to engage with his grandson who clearly has talent as an artist. Like stories and memories for old people the narrative presents events outside a strict chronology and at first we aren’t quite sure how the grandfather knows about all the events. The film is presented in a ‘Scope ratio and it lasts just 71 minutes but packs in a lot.

The earliest sketches are faint and hazy

In February 1939 Franco’s forces, with the help of other Fascists in Italy and Germany, finally defeated the Republicans in Barcelona and half a million soldiers and ordinary citizens, men women and children fled Catalonia, marching over the Pyrenees in in the snow to reach France. But by 1939 the Popular Front in France had failed to resolve political differences in relation to the war in Spain, despite support for intervention by French communists. The Spanish Republicans expected some form of support in France but instead were met by at best indifference and at worst downright rejection and horrific conditions of internment. The Spanish were put into concentration camps hastily constructed along the coast of Roussillon and at several other sites across the rest of France. Josep was one of those who found himself in a camp on the coast guarded by Gendarmes, many with Fascist sympathies, and ‘Colonial troops’ – Senegalese tirailleurs. Josep had few belongings and was only sustained by his passion for drawing which he carried out with whatever implements and canvases he could improvise. Eventually, one of the few compassionate Gendarmes smuggled in a pencil and small notebook enabling him to draw more effectively. These drawings would become the basis for a later publication named La Retirada after the name given to this exodus from Catalonia.

In some camps there were men and women – who here search for lice in the children’s hair

There are several important figures involved in bringing Josep Bartolí’s story to cinema screens. The film is directed (and drawn) by Aurel, a press cartoonist. He works for Le Monde and Le Canard Enchaîné. He has published around twenty books including two documentary comics, Clandestino and La Menuiserie, and produced numerous graphic reports for various titles in the French press. (Source: the film’s Press Pack.) Aurel had made one short film before this, his first feature. He set out to be faithful to both the story and to the different drawing styles that Bartolí used, often out of necessity. Early scenes are drawn in pencil, then ink and felt tip. At first the colour is almost completely drained from the scenes but later it emerges, most dramatically in the appearances by Frida Kahlo. Towards the end of the story, Josep is in effect painting with broad colours. The script for the film was written by Jean-Louis Milesi who is possibly best known in the UK as the writer of films for the Marseilles-based socialist filmmaker Robert Guédiguian and Josep is ‘voiced’ by the Barcelona-born actor Sergi López.

Bartoli in the midst of the horrors he drew in fine lines

I don’t want to say too much about the events that Josep is part of or which he observes. Suffice to say these concentration camps were a disgrace and the treatment of the Republicans and especially communist Republicans (who their gaolers couldn’t properly distinguish from anarchists) was dreadful. After 1940 some of them worked as forced labour and some were sent to Nazi death camps. Some found themselves building the camps that held Jews and others rounded up in Vichy France under the orders of the Gestapo. One tiny ray of light in all this seems to have been the common decency of some of the Senegalese troops shown towards the Spanish Republicans. Some of the Spanish did eventually escape to fight with the French Résistance and I read somewhere that the first motor vehicle driven into Paris as part of the liberating allied forces was driven by a Spanish Republican. The identity of the grandfather telling the tale to his grandson gradually becomes clear.

In Mexico, Bartoli (up the ladder) helping Frida Kahlo to paint her house

I knew something of the historical events surrounding ‘La Retirada’ but I didn’t know about the details of the camps. Some Republicans made it to the UK, others got to the US and many made it to Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. I don’t think any of those refugees/exiles met the kind of treatment meted out to Josep and his compañeros. I hope this film gets a UK cinema release in the future. It is also possible to view currently via BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema streaming (which is taking some of the titles in My French Film Festival).

Felicità (France 2020)

There is a lot to like about any film shot in ‘Scope and lasting only 81 minutes, the perfect length for a comedy. This particular comedy is indeed a good watch but with an unusual ‘feel’ and tone. ‘Felicità’ is actually an Italian pop song played on the car radio as this family trio, ‘Tommy’ and her parents, drive along. The song title simply means ‘happiness’ and that might be the quest for this narrative. When the film begins we first see Tommy (who is possibly 11) in an odd composition within the Scope frame. She is reflected in the mirror of a washroom, caught with just her head in shot in the bottom right corner of the mirror. The only other object in the frame is a hand dryer which she will eventually use and we follow her out, back into a beachfront café. When she sits down opposite Tim and Chloe, she grabs her set of large headphones and when she has them on the soundtrack goes dead. We might get the sense that she is alienated. When she takes them off after a minute or so, Tim hesitatingly begins to tell her a story that suggests she is actually adopted as her real parents left her in Tim and Chloe’s flat when she was a baby. But now Tim has seen her father again and he has become the rapper Orelsan, a wealthy man. Tim says that Tommy has a choice she can go to Orelsan or stay with Tim and Chloe. Tommy is unfazed and finally replies “hilarious”. Tim sighs and complains that she used to believe his stories. This opening sets up the narrative quite effectively.

The family in a ‘borrowed’ country house

I don’t want to spoil all the gags and comedy situations so I won’t outline the whole plot. I’ll just point out that the family are in Brittany. Only a day is left in the summer holidays and then Tommy is due to start school again. The chaotic life of her parents means that she has rarely arrived at school on the first day of term. Her parents are determined that this year she will so the narrative has a clear target. Will Tommy be there on time? The action is set on the Côtes d’Armor, the Channel coast of Northern Brittany. Tim and Chloe have a bolthole on a boat moored in a local harbour and a car, but that seems to be it. Both parents, but more Tim, have things in their past that they haven’t fully explained to Tommy. Since telling stories is part of the family’s modus operandi we, the audience, can’t be sure about their pasts either. In just under 24 hours the trio will have various adventures and Tommy will be tested as to whether she can survive with these odd parental models. At various points, Orelsan makes appearances, dressed in a spacesuit, and on one occasion giving Tommy advice. Tim shows her the Tod Browning film Freaks (US 1932) on a portable TV set with video recorder. It’s that kind of French film and all the better for it, I think.

Tommy . . .

Tommy is played by director Bruno Merle’s daughter Rita. She’s a remarkable young actor and a joy to watch. Pio Marmaï and Camilla Rutherford are an attractive couple and very good as Tommy’s parents. Orelsan plays himself. Brittany looks good  in the images created by cinematographer Romain Carcanade and I like the selection of songs on the soundtrack. Only in French cinema would the film end with a Gene Vincent song from 1961 – terrific.

. . . and her parents

I’m not much of a fan of comedies these days. They have to be intelligent and heartfelt. This one is. Bruno Merle writes several films which appear to target children as the audience. He directs only sporadically and here seems to be working with a limited budget (his own house, his father’s boat?) but the results are good to watch. This is a film with a child at its centre but it seems to be designed for an adult audience. I hope children enjoy as well. There are a couple of dark moments but Rita/Tommy defuses them quietly for me. I enjoyed the film more than I thought I would. It’s currently streaming as part of My French Film Festival online.

Working Girls (Filles de joie, Belgium-France 2020)

‘My French Film Festival’ is now running online until February 15. There are several features films that stand out plus a selection of short films. I picked out Working Girls for two reasons. It’s a Belgian film featuring three women living in France, in Roubaix, who work in a brothel in Belgium to make ends meet. I also recognised three of the leads in the film and especially Sara Forestier who impressed me greatly in Suzanne (France 2013), a film by Katell Quillévéré. I was also surprised to learn that the film had been selected as the Belgian entry for the 2020 ‘Best International Feature’ Oscar awards. It didn’t sound like the kind of film the Academy voters were likely to go for.

Conso leaving her high rise to join the other two for the drive

I’m interested in Roubaix as a location because it’s twinned with Bradford in the UK, sharing the traditional importance of the woollen industry and the more recent development of a significant Muslim population. Roubaix has been used as a location in several French films, most notably in the films of Arnaud Desplechin. Unfortunately, in this film, all we see of the town is a block of high-rise flats and suburban streets (which may well have been shot in a different location). The three women of the title meet in a housing estate car park and drive into Belgium to work. The only significant image of their journey is the road sign (with the EU flag) announcing they are entering Belgium. It  is a poignant moment for a viewer in ‘beleaguered Brexit Britain’. I’m wondering what will happen on Eurostar trains heading for Brussels when we can travel again after the pandemic?

The ‘rest room’ at the brothel

I’ve read several reviews and comments about the film, many of which stress that this is “not a film about prostitution”. That’s an odd statement I think. I think the source of this is the director’s statement that the film doesn’t cover some of the conventional themes associated with brothels in films.The film represents what goes on in a brothel, it deals to some extent with the procedures of the brothel and it focuses on the lives of these three ‘ordinary’ women whose circumstances have pushed them into this kind of work. In one sense the film is unusual in that the three women are French rather than migrants from Eastern Europe or further afield. (Wikipedia suggests that many prostitutes in Belgium are Bulgarian.) The last similar film I can remember is The Receptionist (Taiwan-UK 2016) in which the ‘girls’ are from China or Taiwan. The women in Roubaix don’t have to worry about immigration authorities but they do have lives not connected to sex work (they work under pseudonyms to protect their identities) and these can also be problematic. Axelle (Sara Forestier) is a mother of three small children who are looked after by their grandmother. The man she claims is not her husband is Yann (Nicolas Cazalé) who is around and seems to think he has rights re the children. Dominque or ‘Do’ is played by Noémie Lvovsky who was so good as the mother in Catherine Corsini’s Summertime (France 2015). ‘Do’ works as a nurse on the night shift. She has a husband and two teenage children to support. The third woman is Conso (Annabelle Lengronne) who is the youngest of the three, living on her own. In some ways she is the most vulnerable of the three. The three are aggressive towards each other but also supportive, realising that they must protect each other.

Axelle with her youngest child and her ex-partner Yann

The film opens with the three seemingly burying a body in the rain and mud. The rest of the narrative is therefore a long flashback, at the end of which we will discover the identity of the body. There is also a three-part structure to the flashback so we focus on each of the three women in turn. It’s significant that the writer on the film is Anne Paulicevich who spent a long time researching the background to her story which was inspired by a newspaper article. She visited a brothel regularly for several months talking informally to the ‘working girls’. The Internet Movie Database credits her as co-director of the film with Frédéric Fonteyne. Cineuropa and the film’s Press Pack list her as ‘artistic director’. I’m not quite sure what that means but I suspect that she worked closely with the three female leads and with the cinematographer Juliette Van Dormael. The brothel is, in this film, a female space, at least in the back room where the women chat. I don’t see a Hollywood remake in the current climate, even with the relatively small amount of nudity. The actual sexual encounters are brief and never really gratuitous, but there is also violence. The violence comes from men both as clients and outside the brothel, but we learn little about them.

Do entertains one of her older clients

I’m not sure what to make of the film. This kind of subject matter is always difficult to handle and to pitch to distributors and audiences. Paulicevich says in the Press Pack that she sees the women as ‘heroes’ and indeed the most successful aspect of the film is the interaction between the women and how they overcome problems. Paulicevich herself wrote the film because she had only just become a mother with a baby daughter and had left an abusive relationship. Frédéric Fonteyne reveals that the film had a working title of La frontière, suggesting both the border between the two EU countries, the border between genres, social norms, emotions etc. I think that might have been a better title but he said that he realised it would be misleading for audiences if they thought it implied trafficking. Fonteyne suggests it is a ‘political film’ in its treatment of violence towards women and female solidarity. I’m not sure about that and I’d like to see some reviews by women. I understand that prostitution is not ‘standardised’ across the EU. Belgian policy is to regulate an industry that is not illegal but in France brothels are illegal so that presumably explains the original newspaper story.

The film was low budget and shot in just 30 days partly in the brothel used for the research. It is clearly an achievement to produce such a film and the performances from the three leads are outstanding. I’m not sure if in the end Paulicevich Fonteyne have achieved their aims but I found the film engaging and worthwhile, mainly for the melodrama of the three women’s interactions, and I think it is definitely worth watching.