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.
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).
Offering a close to complete survey of the director’s fiction and documentary features and shorts, “The World of Agnès Varda” allows us to see that Varda’s films—the successes, the failures, and the ones in between—are part of a single, complicated project that involves the tension between social realities and subjective vision. At least two of her films—Cléo and Vagabond (1985)—are landmarks in world cinema, and her most recent, The Gleaners and I, despite its offhand quality, will probably stand up just as strongly to the test of time.
The tough, disturbing Vagabond is a combination of road movie and policier. At the opening, Mona (memorably incarnated by Sandrine Bonnaire), a young drifter, is found dead in a ditch. It’s midwinter, and she had been wandering in circles around this 100 miles or so of French farm country for months—filthy, hungry, weighed down by her backpack and her tent. The film bears witness to Mona’s precipitous decline and also, as if it were a documentary, takes testimony from those who encountered her. Not merely a behaviorist study of a character whose interior life remains a mystery, Vagabond is also a mirror of the fantasies and social attitudes projected onto women who break the rules. A former secretary, Mona preferred to take her chances on the road rather than knuckle under for the sake of a regular paycheck. Although she’s young, strong, and willing to work, her refusal to accommodate anyone else’s standards or desires—she doesn’t bathe, she’s demanding, she’ll fuck for a joint and take off without a thank-you—guarantees that she won’t survive.
Varda’s underrated but equally transgressive Kung-Fu Master (1987) shows how a very different kind of woman comes to grief when she acts on her desires. Jane Birkin plays a divorced mother of two who falls in love and has an affair with her daughter’s 14-year-old classmate. French literature and film abound with stories about adolescent boys initiated into sex by horny older women; Kung-Fu Master is different in that it focuses on the woman’s desire (she’s more than a notch on some guy’s belt) and, to make matters more awkward, she’s madly in love. Varda keeps the sex discreetly offscreen, perhaps because the actor who plays the film’s object of desire evokes another taboo. He’s the director’s son, Mathieu Demy.
Among the other pleasurable films in the series are Jacquot de Nantes and The World of Jacques Demy, Varda’s feature-length portraits of her late husband, and the limpidly beautiful Le Bonheur (showing in a brand-new 35mm print). Stay clear of the soporific One Hundred and One Nights and ’60s curiosities like Les Créatures and Lion’s Love ( . . . and Lies). No one could ever make a case for Varda’s consistency, but her three groundbreakers easily earn her a place in cinema history.
Amy Taubin’s review of “Rendez-Vous With French Cinema,” Part 1, and Agnès Varda’s Gleaners and I.