The searing images of the September 11 attacks initially prompted literal references to action movies, the only place most viewers had ever seen fireballs that size. The planners of these attacks knew exactly how to rivet a huge country not known for its cohesiveness, let alone its attention span: unlike the Hollywood special effects, these were horrifically real. But the attacks brought to light changes long underway and not just in the Middle East; displacement and resentment are key elements of this violence. The stateless aspect of globalization plays its part, as well as massive, ongoing migrations. For large numbers of people, life is less about purchasing power than simply finding a purchase.
Several recent French-language films – Téchiné’s Les Voleurs (1996), Ozon’s Regarde la Mer (1997), Erich Zonca’s Dreamlife of Angels (1998), the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta(1999), and Virginie Despentes’s Baise-moi (2000) – show characters shaped by this instability. Rootless, disaffected, and willing to resort to violence, the young women in these films point to a new reality of which explosive massacres are only one of the more appallingly spectacular consequences. Unemployed or working itinerantly, their dwellings interim and provisional, these women scrape by. Several are the product of foreshortened childhoods, divorce, and abuse of one sort or another. Short-term allegiances replace social connection, impermanence the only reliable element of these characters’ lives.
In corresponding American films, such working-class protagonists would achieve a goal (Erin Brokovich) or win a fight (Norma Rae). And even the inevitable hand-in-hand death of Thelma and Louise is mitigated by the women’s actualization of themselves before their cliffside plunge. It’s a feel-good nihilism: as inadvertent but real killers, Thelma and Louise no longer belong to the audience’s moral sphere. They join other movie gangsters, the ur-outsiders; presented as just one more goofy risk they will take together, their death isn’t sad. It’s a release. Their successful lawlessness cost their lives, but it relieves the audience of envying their success and dealing with the necessary aggression that brought it about. (This is a traditional function of the gangster, as aptly observed by Robert Warshow in his 1948 essay “The Gangster as Tragic Hero.”)
None of the recent French-language films offer such neatly resolved stories, and there’s no relief. Even earlier French female outlaw roles such asJean Seberg in Godard’s Breathless, Isabel Corey in Melville’s Bob le Flambeur or Jeanne Moreau in Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows seem quaint and cozy compared to the starkness of these new films. Love and a sense of place anchored the earlier characters; their more recent counterparts are not so much marginalized as invisible. In two generations, women’s choices have multiplied but so have their disillusions: none of these characters, even the married woman inRegarde la Mer, look to their men for protection or comfort.
Confusion and anger fuel each of these stories; at their core, they show females in a state of tremendous transition and flux. In earlier films, even quite aberrant female roles kept to courtship conventions of a kind (Moreau in Richardson’s Mademoiselle, for example, or Catherine Deneuve in Bunuel’s Belle de Jour are both bucking an established order but still functioning within its dictates). Two generations later, sexuality is asserted, taken for granted, its function largely corruptive: the need for sheer contact, like the option of violence, is no longer strictly limited to men. These stories reflect political and economic uncertainties without referring to them blatantly. Directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have termed Rosettaa war film; in the sense of wartime rupture and fragmentation, the description applies to each of these films.
Les Voleurs is the most conventional, with sibling rivalry underlying its thriller and love story elements. The film pivots around Juliette (Laurence Cote), a delinquent verging on big-time crime. She has a cold affair with her arresting officer Alex (Daniel Auteuil), a follow-up to her affair with his now-dead criminal brother. She also continues a taunting romance with her philosophy professor Marie (Catherine Deneuve). Alex and Marie meet occasionally, a truce between rivals, their infatuation with Juliette so addictive that they’re bound to each other. Deneuve and Auteuil convey their solitary, highly intelligent, and self-controlled characters with tiny, precise movements that virtually mirror each other in their scenes together. Lithe and epicene, Cote gives Juliette an erratic energy at once appealing and off-putting; nothing feels predictable, her impulsiveness a perfect foil for her lovers. (The art direction is especially good here, with unwelcoming manmade space the dominant setting – even a potentially snug chalet has a secretive, creepy effect.) Moving among various institutions – the university, the police force, organized crime – Juliette exposes their weakness but for no particular motive. There’s no remedy for her disaffection except to keep going.
Despite its crushing obviousness and deep debt to its predecessors (Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, most clearly), Baise-moi does have sheer gal-gall in its favor. Karen Lancaume (Nadine) and Rafaella Anderson (Manu) display a raw and raucous je m’en foutisme; their sum purpose total defiance of just about everything, except, for a time, each other. Embittered and estranged by a double rape (Manu) and the murder of a close friend (Nadine), the women inadvertently team up to become an avenging sorority. Their crimes announce them to the world – all at once, these marginalized women are present, heard and seen on television and in the newspapers. Initially a quest for money, the women’s spree of one-night stands and random killing quickly supersedes their interest in the cash: they’ve finally found a way of life, a way to be. Their piratical approach to fucking, partners shanghaied as needed, is the most unusual element of this relentless film. Sex is a craving and a necessity, as essential and impersonal as gasoline in the 1981Road Warrior.Baise-moistrikes one thunderous note throughout, sapping its own potency with a shrill insistence on bringing every scene to the same full climax, culminating in the trite finish of Nadine bestowing a kiss on Manu’s corpse. Despite its hardcore surface,Baise-moihas a center of mushy sentimentality that makes its violations seem little more than bad-girl posturing.
The anger is far more believable in Regarde la Mer. The only one of these films with a mother as protagonist, this is the tale of Sasha (Sasha Hails), who is alone with her infant in a remote seaside cottage, her husband to join them within days. The opening scenes show the rarely documented drudgery of childrearing. Sasha is wildly bored. Her desultory care for the baby just skirts all-out neglect: ignoring the child’s crying until absolutely necessary to respond; leaving her alone in the tub; and, later, abandoning the baby on the beach while she has an anonymous tryst in the nearby woods. Drifter Tatiana’s (Marina de Van) request to pitch her tent on the cottage grounds has the bullying quality of an initiation rite; she immediately puts Sasha on the weaker end of the relationship. Hails plays Sasha with an adolescent eagerness to please: she wants to be as hip and unencumbered as this aloof vagabond. De Van’s long oval face has the forbidding quality of a seventeenth-century Flemish portrait (echoes of Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock’sRebecca), and she immobilizes it into a stony mask. She looks patiently predatory, androgyne; in a short masturbatory sequence in the tub, her surfacing face appears diabolically bearded. Tatiana’s contempt for Sasha, for her safely adventurous indiscretions, and for her smug generosity make the culminating scenes of implied violence far more potent than the show-all versionBaise-moiserves up. The tardy appearance of Sasha’s unnamed husband only emphasizes his uselessness; his whole world gone by the time he finally arrives at the idyllic retreat.
In the title role of Rosetta, Emilie Duquenne presents a character of similar grub distress, although with a nominal family connection – she grudgingly looks after her alcoholic mother (Anne Yernaux) in their trailer. From the opening sequence in which Rosetta refuses to leave a job from which she’s been fired, Duquenne’s every movement is angry and self-punishing – she uses her mouth to hold various objects (including a padlock) and she twitches with annoyance about the cramps that plague her. Duquenne’s gestures are abrupt, defensive to the point of isolation: Rosetta can brook no weakness in herself or anyone else. By remaining behind her for much of the film, the camera angle conveys the terrible sense that every corner of the world has been claimed, that there’s no place that’s hers. Even water is at a premium where she lives, the cheap, garishly colored plastic basin she fills a familiar element in any refugee camp. Furtive and suspicious, Rosetta seems always prepared for ambush. She doesn’t so much live as continue to exist, hemmed in by her chronic desperation.
A similar fault line of blighted hope runs through Dreamlife of Angels. It details the cometary friendship of Isa (Elodie Bouchez) and Marie (Natacha Regnier), which flickers with a bit of warmth before quickly deteriorating into mistrust and dislike. Living under imminent eviction from their apartment, the two women are both completely reactive, merely subsisting from moment to moment. Regnier plays the more fragile of the two, her bravado and cynicism a flimsy cover for clawing despair. Tense even when smiling, Regnier’s expression becomes increasingly cornered, particularly during her despondent affair with the town rich kid. Marie still clings to a hopeless hope that romance will save her, deliberately courting disappointment by choosing a party boy. Isa is far beyond this point. She has the grifter’s instinct for making do and for blending in. Of all the women in these films, she is the most complicated and enigmatic, her approach opportunistic and tenacious as a virus. Dreamlife opens with her sniffling on the soundtrack as she collects for a nonexistent charity to make some cash. Marie has the luxury of rebelling, of having something to fight against; Isa scrounges what she can out of life, always ready to appear pliant for short-term gain. Bouchez’s intent look is the opposite of Regnier’s trapped animal: she gladly feeds off other lives to the point of not only visiting the comatose daughter of the owner of their apartment, but adding to the child’s diary as well. Isa disappears when the child begins to show signs of reviving; Bouchez looks almost afraid when the nurse tells her the good news. Her performance has a prematurely wizened quality that makes Isa seems simultaneously sympathetic and infuriating. It’s wily strength: Isa will abide.
All the films share a disoriented feeling toward the landscape, a kind of nowhere in which even named cities have no identifying landmarks. There’s a sense of dis-ease, of people at odds with what surrounds them. Even food has lost its comfort, the meals almost always on the run and composed of sweets or junk. The tone in every one of these films is interior and documentary, human-scale stories that reflect a world in the process of serious restructuring.