All the Girls of Their Age

Unless you're a cop or a hit man, movies seldom give more than a wink and a nod to your line of employment. TV adds doctors, lawyers, and government chiefs to the mix, but for the most part, routine labor—what most people spend a third of their lives doing—is conspicuously absent from the screen. In recent French cinema, films that focus on work—from Claire Denis's No Fear, No Die to Laurent Cantet's Human Resources to Olivier Assayas's Les Destinées Sentimentales—make up a mini-genre. Add to these Philippe Le Guay's Nightshift, a small but compelling film showcased in this year's "Rendez-Vous With French Cinema" series.

Nightshift shows how a seemingly secure and optimistic man falls apart when he becomes the scapegoat of a manipulative and violent coworker. Pierre (the unassuming Gerald Laroche) has a decently paid job in a bottle factory and loving relationships with his pre-teen son and his beautiful wife. He also enjoys a camaraderie with all his colleagues except Fred (Marc Barbé), an embittered but charismatic amateur boxer who envies Pierre's happiness and sets about destroying his faith in himself and those he holds dear. Everyone on the night shift realizes that Fred's psychological and physical intimidation of Pierre goes beyond friendly masculine horseplay, but since they're not so clear about where to draw the line between bonding and bullying, they avoid getting involved. Similarly, Pierre believes he is somehow culpable for Fred's behavior toward him—that it's a reflection of his failure to measure up as a man. Nightshift is a subtle slice of life that threatens to metamorphose into a horror film as Fred's aggression escalates (from rubbing a container of yogurt in Pierre's face to nearly taking out his eye with a well-aimed basketball). But its greatest achievement is in revealing the code of masculinity that underlies the behavior and identity of two seemingly opposite personalities.

A more familiar genre, the coming-of-age film, is represented in the "Rendez-Vous" series by two entries about teenage girls: Agnès Obadia and Jean-Julien Chervier's feisty and funny Hair Under the Roses and Anne-Sophie Birot's overheated, prurient Girls Can't Swim. Hair Under the Roses brings an irresistible character to the screen: The 14-year-old Roudoudou (played by Julie Durand) is the antithesis of the nubile girls who function as box-office insurance worldwide. (The film's title seems simply weird until you realize it's a swipe at American Beauty.) Roudoudou has irregular features, a chunky body, and an inquisitive mind, and she comes out swinging in all situations. What she wants most is to be regarded by the world at large as a sexually desirable woman. To this end, she claims to have had experiences in the sack she can't fully imagine and tries to project an avidity that's out of tune with her confused feelings of fear and desire. The filmmakers find a rich source of humor in Roudoudou's predicament, but they never make her the butt of the joke. Hair Under the Roses has similarities to such American teen flicks as Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Slums of Beverly Hills; Obadia and Chervier, however, have an advantage in not having to worry about the MPAA's notorious double standard for young women.

Sneak Preview: Durand and Alexis Roucourt in Hair Under the Roses
photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center
Sneak Preview: Durand and Alexis Roucourt in Hair Under the Roses


Rendez-Vous with French Cinema
Walter Reade
Through March 18

The World of Agnès Varda
Film Forum
March 16 through April 5

That the contrived Girls Can't Swim already has American distribution is no doubt thanks to the presence of Isild Le Besco in the leading role. Regarded as one of France's most promising actresses, Le Besco (also seen in another "Rendez-Vous" entry, Benoît Jacquot's Sade) has a physical splendor and a way of flinging off her clothes that's reminiscent of the young Bardot, although she's a much more confident and emotional performer. Her signature role is that of a fledgling femme fatale who demands the freedom to fuck whomever she pleases. While the control of one's body and desire is at the core of women's liberation, the single-minded focus of Le Besco's characters on the sexual arena suggests a fantasy of female adolescence that's not only pure showbiz but one which also guarantees the spectacle of the girl's victimization. Girls Can't Swim purports to be a film about female friendship, but the fact that the subject is given little more than lip service suggests that Birot is either an inept storyteller, or that at some point, she looked at the dailies and took the path of least resistance.

Agnès Varda's reputation in the U.S. never fully recovered from the fact that one of her worst films was also her most publicized. The sudsy, consciousness-raising quasi-musical One Sings, the Other Doesn't was released in 1976, just when a burgeoning feminist film movement was looking for women directors to champion. More Paul Mazursky than Chantal Akerman, One Sings made even the staunchest supporters of Varda's landmark first features, La Pointe Courte (1954) and Cléo From 5 to 7 (1961), fear that the director had gone soft in the head. The irony was that Akerman's Jeanne Dielman (1975) was indebted to Varda's structuralist use of real time in Cléo (much as Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her was inspired by Cléo's juxtaposition of a female psyche and a politicized, documentary approach to the city of Paris).
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