A passive protagonist. Very little conflict. The need for heavy narration to carry meaning. On the checklist of reasons not to adapt a literary source to the screen, Doris Lessing’s short story “Victoria and the Staveneys” ticks nearly every box short of “Is about people who get off on car crashes.” And, indeed, the primary takeaway from Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s film of Lessing’s story, My Friend Victoria, is that “Victoria and the Staveneys” sounds like an exquisite piece of writing — a subtle disquisition on race and class in contemporary France, with clean, simple language and evocative turns of phrase. So much effort has been made to preserve Lessing’s prose, in fact, that you could close your eyes and feel like it’s being read aloud to you.
Yet My Friend Victoria has a specific vibrancy as delicate and understated as Lessing’s social critique. It’s an accumulation of small moments: telling gazes, sour notes in the dialogue, the persistent impression of a woman who’s in a room but never fully present. Broadly, the premise concerns the relationship between Victoria, a young black woman from a disadvantaged background, and a white bourgeois family that becomes central to her aspirations and alienation. A lesser director might have reinforced the themes of Lessing’s story by amplifying the drama or more sharply exposing the unexamined privilege and thoughtless condescension of liberal elites. Civeyrac has a more glancing touch.
Elegantly divided into four chapters, each named for a character who dominates a section of Victoria’s life, the film opens with a single and seemingly inconsequential visit that profoundly affects her perspective. An eight-year-old orphan living with her sick aunt, Victoria (played here by Keylia Achie Beguie) spends one night with the Savinets, a well-to-do white family, while her caretaker is in the hospital. Nothing special happens: The little girl, painfully shy and polite, gapes at the comparative vastness of their apartment but otherwise quietly accepts their hospitality and moves on to another family the next night.
But just this short glimpse haunts Victoria well into adulthood, when she becomes part of the Savinets’ lives once more. Still the taciturn figure she was in her youth, Victoria (played now by Guslagie Malanga) has a fling with the younger of the two Savinet brothers, Thomas (Pierre Andrau), and pines for the elder, Edouard (Alexis Loret), who treated her kindly that long-ago night. Victoria makes a critical decision that binds her more closely to the Savinets, but Civeyrac imagines her not as a character who takes decisive action but — as per the voiceover — “a puppet gliding over the world without putting down roots or controlling anything.”
There are scant instances of overt racism in My Friend Victoria — one hurled epithet on the street, a couple of moments of old-man insensitivity — and little the Savinets do could even rise to the status of “microaggression.” Yet Civeyrac beautifully suggests Victoria’s acute feelings of otherness without turning the Savinets into monsters or avatars for the decadent bourgeoisie. As Victoria has children, the film deftly mines the complications of racial identity and how they can reshape (or upend) families while reinforcing the barriers between black and white, rich and poor.
My Friend Victoria doesn’t entirely transcend the page — the person telling the story, Victoria’s eventual stepsister and closest friend, is too plainly a literary device — but it’s deeper than mere illustration. Here’s a rare film about race and class differences where everyone gets along just fine. Civeyrac’s achievement is tracing the invisible lines that divide us.
My Friend Victoria
Written and directed by Jean-Paul Civeyrac
Opens December 4, IFC Center
Written and directed by Jean-Paul Civeyrac. Based on the short story “Victoria and the Staveneys” by Doris Lessing. Starring Guslagie Malanda, Nadia Moussa, Catherine Mouchet, and Pascal Greggory.