DOWN BY LOVE (Éperdument) D+
France Belgium (110 mi) 2016 ‘Scope d: Pierre Godeau
It’s surprising how far the mighty have fallen, as just three years ago, actress Adèle Exarchopoulos, along with co-star Léa Seydoux, both made history by being given a Cannes Palme d’Or, the first instance that it was awarded to the two lead actresses as well as the director for Abdellatif Kechiche’s award winning film Blue Is the Warmest Color (La Vie d'Adèle, Chapitres 1 et 2) (2013), becoming the only women besides Jane Campion to have won the festival’s top award. As there was some fallout after the announcement with the actresses claiming they were bullied on the set, complaining the director’s style was sexually abusive, making them feel like “prostitutes,” it’s perhaps not surprising that the director has not worked since and has no planned films in the works, where it appears he’s been blacklisted by the industry. Both actresses, on the other hand, have worked steadily. But if this is any indication of the material chosen by Exarchopoulos, who in 2014 was voted Most Promising Actress in the French César awards, her career is on a downward descent, as this film is something of a disgrace, with the worst offensive being it’s pretentious and sexually exploitive. While it’s basically a prison B-movie, where in America a prestigious director like Jonathan Demme began his directing career making a Roger Corman produced women’s prison exploitation flick called CAGED HEAT (1974), leave it to the French to take it completely seriously, where the young actress has shown little growth in her role, but instead retreats to familiar grounds where in the most sexually explicit scenes she once again takes her clothes off. While she’s a beautiful young woman, the problem is there’s little else worth talking about, as the film otherwise exposes a lackluster indifference and is one of the least engaging films seen all year. While not impressed with Nolwenn Lemesle’s Pieces of Me (Des morceaux de moi) (2012), a very average earlier film Exarchopoulos made prior to working with Kechiche, this film is actually much worse, and while her performance is not the primary cause of embarrassment, it does leave plenty of doubts about this actress’s ability to carry a film.
Adapted from the autobiographical book Défense d’aimer by Florent Gonçalvez, the former director of the French Versailles prison describing his scandalous 2011 affair with an inmate, most will find the movie version incredulous, especially the pernicious behavior of the prison director, whose obsessional behavior is so out of line that it’s difficult to take his actions seriously. Bogged down by the shoddy work of a director that refuses to make a single scene inventive or interesting, instead it’s a routine, by-the-numbers scenario that would describe the kind of predictable social drama screened on television on a nightly basis with Exarchopoulos once more assigned a role largely playing to the male gaze. Much like David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014), which is infinitely more interesting than this, but both are the stuff of relatively light reading airport novels that accentuate salacious material. In this film, viewers may squirm in their seats and grow uncomfortable not from any build-up of suspense, but from how emotionally dull and inert the characters are with one another, where there’s simply no sexual chemistry to justify such a major risk, in this case destroying a marriage, a family, and a career, where the audience has to keep asking themselves—for what? Anna Amari (Exarchopoulos) is seen arriving at a new prison facility, where she’s being transferred to be closer to her mother, Marie Rivière from Rohmer’s Le Rayon Vert (Summer) (1986) and An Autumn Tale (Conte D’Automne) (1998). Receiving the standard new girl treatment, she’s called a variety of offensive names, becoming the target of vicious attacks, eventually forced to defend herself, where enemies are established early on. Unlike real prisons, however, this one is exceedingly quiet, with prisoners often seen roaming the hallways without any guard present, where this film actually suggests there is a great deal of privacy to be found inside prison compounds. Enter Jean Firmino (Guillaume Gallienne), who is initially viewed as a social worker. There is nothing in his character to suggest he is anything more, as one never suspects he runs the institution. He’s middle-aged, happily married, and has a young daughter who seems to idolize him. A visit to his daughter’s school confirms that he is viewed more as a civil servant than an authority figure.
Firmino takes an interest in Anna’s case, helping to prepare her for her upcoming trial, with the film leaving out any backstory about her supposed crime. We never learn what she is convicted of, but surprisingly spends four years in prison even before her sentencing, about half of her time, where she’ll still be under age 25 by her expected release. Firmino, on the other hand, is likely to be in his forties, so there’s about a twenty year age difference. Nonetheless, Firmino continually arranges private time for Anna, though it’s not really all that private, as guards deliver her for every visit, though she’s often left alone on the premises completely unguarded afterwards, and would have to be considered a security risk. What’s perhaps most preposterous, yet so decidedly French, is the assignment of dramatic texts for the prisoners, where Anna is being taught Racine’s Phèdra, a 17th century ancient Greek mythological play written in Alexandrine verse where the lead character is driven to incestuous desires, a victim of her own impulses, consumed by jealousy and guilt afterwards. However, in her family, descended from the Gods, morality is not really an issue, where death remains the ultimate tragedy, as well as the accompanying fall from grace. A blunt reminder of what’s in store, there’s nothing subtle about this over-hyped drama, moving quickly into acts of sexual taboo, where neither one seems the least bit phased by the potential consequences, showing no conscious whatsoever as they plunge headlong into a scandalous affair, often unable to tell illusion from reality, becoming the talk of the prison, as they spend so much time together. Even Firmino’s wife (Stéphanie Cleau) knows exactly what’s going on, but does nothing to stop it. While it’s more of a cheap and tawdry melodrama without an ounce of passion anywhere, perhaps the only reason to stick around is to see if it will ever end, as it seems to go on forever, where the degree of risk borders on spectacle. Nothing, however, can resuscitate this film from the drivel it descends to, a sick power game with no real balls to speak of, as both apparently lose their minds to an obsession that they foolishly delude themselves into thinking is love. It crossed my mind that one possible ending may be both imprisoned for long durations, holed up in cells at the same facility in different compounds separated by gender, with a view of the other across a spacious courtyard, where they could go on imagining one another while stuck in their own inescapable purgatories. A much better directed version of this is the flamboyant sexual indulgence of Christophe Honoré’s MA MÈRE (2004), a bombastic adaptation of the Georges Bataille philosophical novel that contrasts base sexuality with the divine, striving for transcendence through complete sexual indulgence. This pathetic little misfire is a pale comparison and a candidate for worst film of the year. Surprising that this was chosen for export, but hopefully it won’t ruin anyone’s career.