Des filles en noir / Young Girls in Black (2010)

2 06 2013

My impulse in starting this review is to negotiate Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s importance in contemporary French cinema. Perhaps that’s the sort of argument that deserves its very own space, but a film like this absolutely repositions the filmmakers as one of the country’s best and alas, it seems like no one really is interested in talking about him. This might be one of his more accessible films, but it is one where he builds on his own work. Where he might have been treading in the territory of Rivette or Lynch before (which is perfectly fine!) he is absolutely coming into his own with this feature.


Teenagers Noemie and Priscilla are ostracized at school. Priscilla seems to have something of a boyfriend in Sam, but all of her trust belongs to her best friend, Noemie. The two are falling behind academically, though they manage to give an exceptional presentation on Heinrich von Kleist. Their classmates are confused and alienated by the presentation, one of them calls their fascination with the poet “sick.” In retaliation, Noemie announces that her and Priscilla will follow Kleist’s route and kill themselves. They explain this off as nothing serious, but then they begin planning a way for them to end their lives together.


A film about teenage girls committing suicide might sounds laughably cumbersome to many, but it might be to Civeyrac’s credit that what is commonly understood as a “phase” is treated with such serious attention. At the same time, it is important to mention that this isn’t a social problems film, even as the working class background of both girls is intentionally illuminated. It’s not a “social problems” film by my understanding of the term because it isn’t about confronting the issue of  teenage angst, that’s what a terrible movie would do. The film is immediately built around the minds and hearts of the two protagonists. Noemie and Priscilla don’t sound the slightest bit ridiculous when they announce that they’re going to kill themselves.


I mention the hearts of the two girls on purpose as I would argue that this is indeed a love story. It’s not a sexual or romantic one, even as the photography itself captures both sensually. The aforementioned shades of Lynch might make Mulholland Dr. a reference point, but I don’t think that film’s sexual nature translates to this. Civeyrac himself has shown he’s able to blur the lines of physical interaction and their conscious intention. Civeyrac’s 2000 film, The Lonely features an extended sequence of two friends wrestling naked. The act is understood as playful but it goes on for an uncomfortable amount of time. It’s inevitable that one might eventually read that sequence as sexual. The opposite seems to be going on here. When Noemie and Priscilla embrace, it could initially be read as sexual, but as the camera linger, we realize it comes from a different kind of love. The two are bound together by the fact that the rest of world terrifies or hurts them.


It might be a sign of the fact that cinema doesn’t have enough narratives that is dominated by just two women that this film will indeed be connected to something like Mulholland Dr. The other comparison I mentioned before was Rivette and indeed, the female relationships in Celine and Julie and Le Pont du Nord might be closer to the spirit of the friendship in this film than that of the relationship in Lynch’s film. The biggest point of difference would be that Civeyrac doesn’t share Rivette’s playfulness. The situation here is much more dire, which isn’t a criticism of him being too serious. He certainly can’t be accused of playing up emotional torture, he’s observant with his camera and his characters do the reflection, not him.


One might confuse a strong emotional reaction to this film with the fact that it involves an event that is, for lack of a better word, a tragedy. This isn’t the only reason the film registers for me or why I think it packs a punch. The impact is a jarring one, but it is not that haunts us because of our primal reaction. It’s impossible to talk about suicide without getting personal, because it is perhaps the most personal act. There have been films about it before and there will continue to be films about it, but few films have captured the mental processing of it. To clarify, Civeyrac hasn’t made a heavy-handed film where pretentiously contemplates death, but one where the mere existence of living must be evaluated frequently enough that it becomes overwhelming.


Civeyrac’s film runs only 84 minutes and it’s not like he’s packing a lot of information into this time period. It embodies to me what it means to be cinematic. The film’s narrative never seems like that exactly, but instead it’s the unfolding of events, most of which are relatively minor. While it creates a fascination internal conversation between Noemie and Priscilla on death, it creates another dialogue with Noemie on personal trauma. Her rehab does not end with a triumphant return into the public, nor does it comfort us with the idea that she’s safe. Instead, it’s a ongoing emotional battle, which I realize could not sound more pretentious. Thankfully, Civeyrac has managed to convey all of this beautifully in his film.





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