The most exuberant set piece in the acutely sensitive Set Me Free finds two girls blithely spurning the puppy-dog attentions of the boys at a dance party to hold hands and exchange gazes. As in much of her autobiographical coming-of-age tale, director Léa Pool uses long, steady close-ups to limn the girls’ discovery of each other, coaxing tender, unaffected performances from her two young actresses. They stand on the precarious threshold of adolescence, when physical love has not yet divided into erotic and platonic categories.
Set Me Free ponders how a young person can make a livable home out of this liminal space yet flee its restrictions as quickly as possible. Karine Vanasse, as the protagonist Hanna, is perfectly cast because she has the body of a woman and the sweet, sexless face of a child. Her character, growing up in Montreal during the early ’60s, craves embrace, and she seeks it out from her parents, teacher, brother, and best friend Laura—these last two and Hanna even form a spin-the-bottle love triangle. Not yet 14, Hanna is already searching for an escape hatch from her loving but claustrophobic and emotionally volatile household, where her delicate mother (Pascale Bussières), a Catholic with something of a martyr complex, works long hours as a seamstress to support her children and husband (Miki Manojiovic), a Polish Jew and combative aspiring poet who all but refuses to work a paying job. Seeking refuge in the cinema, Hanna becomes obsessed with the existential Parisian prostitute Nana in Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie, memorizing lines, mimicking her carriage, even finding Anna Karina’s doppelgänger in her sympathetic teacher (Nancy Huston). With generous excerpts from Vivre Sa Vie woven throughout, Set Me Free becomes a movie within a movie, but Pool’s meta-narrative leanings always serve empathic character study. Her film is a tribute to cinema love and all of its engendering possibilities. The movies made Hanna, for better and worse, and by the end of Set Me Free, Hanna is making movies.
Stacy Valentine, née Stacy Baker, began making movies when her bullying husband—a man reminiscent, she implies, of her bullying father—browbeat her into posing nude for an adult magazine. She soon dumped the husband and embarked on a porn-film career, two years of which are chronicled in Christine Fugate’s occasionally smirky documentary The Girl Next Door. We watch naked Stacy sweep up after ants invade a poolside hardcore scene, graphic footage of breast-enlargement surgery and liposuction, and her boyfriend/colleague’s humiliation when he can’t get aroused for a filmed three-way—he has to sit and watch as Stacy performs fellatio on their costar. Fugate is patient and sympathetic with her subject—a sad, fiercely solitary woman with “Trust no one” tattooed in Japanese on her neck—but the point of this project remains oblique. As we know from Boogie Nights and the recent Annabel Chong doc, making porn is bad for you. Staring at the raw evidence of this conclusion, through however compassionate a frame, is either an act of useless pity or sneering voyeurism.