Movie of the Month: Love Me If You Dare (2003)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month CC made Britnee, Brandon, and Boomer watch Love Me if You Dare (2003).

CC: When I was a culturally starved teenager, it was incredibly rare for me to program my own media intake. I desperately wanted to watch pretentious art films and feel like an intellectual, but at the time I was living in a FoxNews and Tim Allen comedy world, stifling my artsy-fartsy dreams. However, I do remember one pivotal weekend when I was around fourteen or fifteen where I got to indulge myself on those impulses. Left alone to set my own schedule, I spent an entire few days’ vacation from others’ control sunbathing and eating bagels all day, and binge-watching the Sundance & IFC movie channels all night. I don’t remember most of the movies I watched that weekend, but a few really stood out to me as gems, including the 2003 French romantic comedy Love Me If You Dare. Something about Love Me If You Dare‘s subversive tone (and bizarre ending) struck me as extraordinary and, importantly at the time, sophisticated. This is before I had even seen Amélie, so I had truly not experienced anything like this unconventional, artsy, French romcom before.

Love Me If You Dare is the story of a boy and girl duo (Guillume Canet and Marion Cotillard) who are locked in a life-long game of romantic oneupsmanship. They first meet as children when the girl is being bullied and the boy cheers her up with the gift of a cookie tin. From there they develop a mischievous game, where whoever possesses the cookie tin can issue a dare the other has to complete, no matter how outrageous. They pass the tin back and forth this way with each completed dare, with no end to the game in sight. Told from the boy’s POV, the story follows this game’s escalation from relatively harmless childhood anarchy to catastrophically destructive mayhem as they hit adulthood and sexual maturity. The film is set up like a traditional romcom, but it’s weirdly antagonistic towards its audience in a way that genre usually isn’t. Its sweet setups usually lead to sour payoffs, subverting expectations established by traditional romcom patterns.

Brandon, given this film’s devious deviations from genre, would you even consider this a romcom? Is there any other genre that would be a more apt description?

Brandon: I don’t think I would readily describe Love Me If You Dare as a romantic comedy, but I’m not exactly sure why. It’s romantic; it’s (darkly) humorous. Yet, classifying it simply as a romcom feels no more accurate than it would be to describe Heathers or Heavenly Creatures as such. This is, at heart, the story of two adrenaline junkies whose violent attraction to each other’s mischievous spirits only leads to destruction. Something about the volatile clash of their thrill-seeking energies (and overactive imaginations) is a Biblically destructive force, crushing the lives of any innocent bystanders in their vicinity who are just trying to get through the day while they are daring each other to tear the world apart. It’s like visiting a world where two Bugs Bunnies are anarchically attempting to out-Bugs Bunny each other, when one is already far more than enough. Sure, the hetero romance at its core (where two characters who are obviously made for each other eventually find a way to be together forever) is a textbook romcom dynamic, but the devilish details veer so far off the rails that its romantic beginnings are a faded memory by the time we reach the life-threatening oneupsmanship of the bonkers third act. We’ve covered romcoms for Movie of the Month before with similarly subversive escalations of unromantic danger: the Hitchcock-riffing Head Over Heels & the noirish Mrs. Winterborne, to be specific. Those examples feel like extreme outliers in the genre, however, and Love Me If You Dare‘s own maniacal self-escalation might even best them in its sheer audacity.

If I had to ascribe Love Me If You Dare to a single genre it might be this: twee mayhem. In general, twee is a much more difficult genre to recommend (or even to define) than the romantic comedy, as it was specific to a very distinct time & sentiment. As I was also a culturally-starved teenager in the early aught, I’m personally predisposed to being helpless to twee pop culture. Where more cynical audiences were revolted by the whimsical imagination, visual fussiness, and cutesy musical cues of twee, I found a desperately needed respite from the grotesque, macho muck pop culture was stuck in for the nu-metal end of the late 90s & early 00s (not knowing at the time that I was mostly watching ideas repurposed & repackaged from French New Wave artists half a century prior). I’ll concede that a lot of twee has aged horribly in the last couple decades; I’ve rolled my eyes at many a Zooey Dechanel project & Etsy store as the years have trudged along. However, I don’t think the loosely-defined genre ever got enough credit for how dark & melancholy it was just below its meticulously curated surface. Artists like Wes Anderson, Michel Gondry, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet often handle topics like depression, abuse, dead pets, and terminal illness with childlike vulnerability & outsized emotions – crafting art that looks pretty but is often surprisingly sinister. That’s exactly where I see Love Me If You Dare fitting in. It’s a darkly romantic comedy that starts with themes like cancer, poverty, and nationalist bullying before escalating to full-blown torture, murder, and suicide. How sweet! Even considering similarly morbid twee romances like Pushing Daisies or Amélie, this film reaches a level of destructive mayhem that feels remarkable for its cutesy tone of childlike whimsy.

Boomer, how does Love Me If You Dare fit into the twee romance template for you? Does it feel at home with how you typically experience the genre or does its level of destructive mayhem make it as much of an outlier in that context as it is as a romcom?

Boomer: It’s funny that you mention Wes Anderson, a director that I love; while watching Love Me if You Dare, my roommate got up and left the room twenty minutes in, saying “This is what I see when I look at a Wes Anderson movie” (he’s not a fan). I think that I might have a slightly different idea of what comprises twee filmmaking; my go-to example of the genre is God Help the Girl, the 2014 film project of Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch starring Emily Browning, Olly Alexander (of queerpop band Years & Years), and Hannah Murray (Skins, Game of Thrones, Bridgend) – a musical featuring songs from Murdoch’s 2009 concept album of the same name. As much as I love Belle & Sebastian – they’re one of my top 5 all time bands – when I finally found a copy of God Help the Girl I hated it for the first fifteen minutes before realizing that I could just give into it and have a good time, and a good time I had indeed. I would also note that I, too, am generally disposed to be forgiving of tweeness when I find it, and for much the same reasons, and I’d add Stranger than Fiction, I ♥ Huckabees, and the most recent TV version of Dirk Gently, Holistic Detective to that canon. It’s fine to enjoy things. I even spent this last New Year’s Eve watching a Friday the 13th marathon on TV with my best friend while we listened to Françoise Hardy records she brought back from France; since those films are mostly young adults wandering through the woods, skinny dipping, and angsting about getting laid, having Le premier bonheur du jour play on while little Corey Feldman watched the horny teens next door get down to business turned the whole film series into a franchise of French coming-of-age films that just happened to have a hockey masked murderer show up from time to time (relax Mrs. Voorhees “well, actually” purists: they were only showing III-VII on a loop). So you could say that even when there is no twee, I might end up adding it in myself.

You also mentioned Heathers, and around these parts it’s no secret that it’s my favorite movie of all time. I’ve never really imagined that it fell into the “twee” category (the musical version notwithstanding) simply because it’s so weirdly and unabashedly dark (“Corn. Nuts!”) and even its lighter elements are still part of an all-encompassingly nihilistic worldview, even with Martha doing a little doughnut on the scooter in the hallway of Westerberg High at the end. I understand where you’re coming from, though, as Love Me if You Dare has a lot of the same hallmarks, and I think that the difference for me comes from the fact that, ultimately Veronica recognizes that her suburban dissatisfaction and the town-wide ignorance of parents and school administrators alike has led her to go all-in on J.D.’s menacing plans for the future. It feels right, in the same way that if Julien and Sophie had pulled back from their life-and-death game of dares it would have felt wrong. Any cutesiness that arises from their ever-escalating dare tag is belied by how utterly committed they are to the whole thing: even the first dare endangers a school bus full of children (granted, they were a bunch of racist little shits who deserved a good scare if nothing else). If that level of intensity had ever been subverted, it would be a different story, but by starting with that platform of playful malice and going from there, there’s never a moment where you really question how cute the whole thing is, until the leads are buried in concrete (or are they?). As it stands, I’d say that it’s just as much a subversion of romcom standards as it is of performative cuteness, so it’s equally an outlier for both but the gentle ribbing it gives to both genres is born out of fondness and affection, rather than something like Heathers (which specifically aims to undermine the supposed harmlessness of eighties teen romances à la John Hughes) or my dearly beloved trash masterpiece Head Over Heels (which asks the question: what if the misunderstanding that separates the two romantic leads involved a murder, maybe?).

Britnee, with regards to romances that take themselves more seriously than Love Me if You Dare, they often have a lot of the same tropes that are present here: the angelically perfect parent with vaguely defined medical problems, resentment from the remaining living parent, economic and/or social stratification between the two romantic leads, etc. Do you think these work here, or do they undercut the smirking self-awareness that the movie has? Are there any that I’ve missed or that you felt should have been present here?

Britnee: Love Me If You Dare had a way of making the basic tropes of romantic films very unsettling. Were we supposed to laugh when Julien was being an insanely rambunctious kid while his mother was dying in her hospital room? Was his relationship with his dad supposed to break our hearts or make us roll our eyes and chuckle? I’m still not sure what the answer is. I love how the film challenged my emotions and really got me to question my humor and sensitivity.

Another romance trope that the film pokes fun at is the reunited lovers living happily ever after. Both Julien and Sophie marry other people and have completely different lives with their significant others. Once the two get together for real without prolonging the game, they don’t run off to start a new life. Instead, they drown in cement at a construction site while making out with each other. It’s so wonderful and silly.

What I enjoyed the most about Love Me If You Dare is the beginning of the film that focuses on Sophie and Julien’s blossoming childhood friendship. Their childlike imagination is brought to life on the screen with whimsical visuals and slanted camera angles. Some scenes even looked like they were taking place in a lifesize pop-up book. Their innocent shenanigans (for the most part) were quirky and adorable, but once the two were pulling the same crap as teenagers and adults, they seemed like total monsters.

CC, did you find young Sophie and Julien to be more likeable than grown Sophie and Julien?

CC: Absolutely! If a teacher lectures a child and said child starts to pee themselves, it’s hilarious. If another adult pees on you, it ruins your day and both parties feel a great deal of shame. Sophie and Julian were two troubled children who used their game as a means of coping with poverty and emotional isolation, respectively. As adults we expect them to either “grow up” and stop playing the game or to get professional help. I’m not saying that children aren’t capable of daring each other to commit heinous crimes, but in the context of this film, the crimes Sophie and Julian commit as adults destroy the lives of everyone in their path. It’s one thing to utter a string of scatological expletives during class in elementary school; it’s another to frame someone for attempted murder and call the French equivalent of the SWAT team on them as a prank.

I think what is most frustrating about their relationship as adults is their refusal to admit their feelings for each other. Neither one is brave enough to declare their love and end the game so it just drags on and on, destroying everything in its path.

Brandon, this film feels very French to me, but do you think it had to be set in France to work? Would it have read as “twee” if it were set elsewhere?

Brandon: It’s more than a vague cultural sensibility or sense of morbid whimsy that makes Love Me If You Dare feel distinctly French. It’s that the film feels so in line with French Cinema of its era. The sickly green digital palette of its early 00s aesthetic is unmistakably akin to the look of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s works. The artificial hand-built theatrical sets of the early childhood fantasy sequences are pure Michel Gondry (who was mostly popular as a music video auteur at the time). It’s like a Greatest Hits collection of early aughts twee aesthetics in that way, except that the limited scope of its CGI budget and the . . . moderate visual talents of debut filmmaker Yann Samuel sometimes make it feel like the kind of Greatest Hits collection you find in a grocery store checkout line or gas station CD rack. What truly makes the film special, then, what distinguishes it among its French cinema peers, is the increasingly morbid nature of its central romance. You can see its absurdist dynamic of two volatile minds who are unavoidably drawn to each other reflected in works from other countries: Heathers, Heavenly Creatures, Thoroughbreds – films far outside the realm of twee. Clashing that inevitably tragic relationship dynamic with the overactive imagination of childhood whimsy does feel distinctly French to me, though, even beyond its adoption of twee visual tropes specifically.

Of course, twee has been exported globally to the point where it is no longer explicitly French, if it ever was. Michel Gondry made most of his iconic works in America. Wes Anderson, a hipster Texan, is a cornerstone of the aesthetic. 2010s twee devotees like the Australian dreamworld comedy Girl Asleep and the aforementioned Scottish musical God Help the Girl are twee as fuck, undeniably so. I’d like to think you could export Love Me If You Dare to practically any urban setting without losing what distinguishes it as twee. What I’d be more concerned about losing in that translation is one of the major reasons the film works as well as it does and one of the defining tropes of artsy-fartsy French cinema at large: the bleak ending. It’s almost a cliché to say that Hollywood productions are more inclined to have a happy ending than their French film counterparts, but I could very easily see an American remake of this film sidestepping or undercutting its tragic conclusion while maintaining the twee whimsy free of morbidity, zapping it of its magic.

Boomer, am I being my own worst nightmare (a pretentious art film snob) by assuming that this quirky French romance must have a tragic ending to succeed on its own terms? Is there any satisfying way you can see this story about two thrill-seeking hedonists who express their affection through torturous dares concluding without them dying in each other’s arms, locked away from the rest of the world? Would a traditional “Hollywood ending” have ruined the appeal of the film’s otherwise sinister romance dynamic?

Boomer: If I’m being completely honest, at the moment that Julien (supposedly) crashed into that truck while speeding away from the police and apparently died, I thought the film was over. When it continued and there was more to it, I thought to myself, “Oh, how French.” It’s not that the French are without morality, of course (I saw enough Earth Day demonstrations in Lyonne last year to know that there are things about which they care deeply and passionately), but their different viewpoint on the relativistic ethics of sexpolitik are pretty different from ours (or at least mine; I’m not trying to project onto anyone else in this group). For me, I kept expecting a more American moralistic standpoint to leap out of the shadows and take over this viewing experience; as a result, I expected that this purely hedonistic joy that Julien declared to be better than [insert your drug/sex position/adrenaline junkie activity of choice here] to be his last moment, and that we were being treated to a Hays-lite moralization that “This may look like fun but it is bad and you will be punished.” And to be honest, I wasn’t entirely opposed to that? Interpreting from a purely American perspective is tricky; while I was watching the scene of Julien’s mother’s death, which Britnee mentioned above, I found myself consciously thinking that this would be treated differently in an American film. Here, I think it demonstrates that Julien is deeply unaware of just how unwell his mother really is, and reflects the way that children fail to understand the articulation of the adult world, and that tragic failure to read the situation may even be the instigating factor in his inability to navigate the adult world with any kind of joy outside of his game with Sophie. That’s not explicit (although it would be in an American film), but it gets to the heart of your question: is there anything tragic in this film (like, as you asked, the ending) that is treated with the deference due to tragedy? Even if death at the bottom of a concrete pylon is a tragedy in theory, the film doesn’t treat it this way, instead acting as if living to a ripe (and ribald) old age is just as emotionally satisfying a “happy” ending as being buried alive. Honestly, seeing the elderly Julien and Sophie together is the Hollywood ending, and it’s not nearly as thematically resonant or tonally consistent as (what I assume is) the real ending. That’s not necessarily being artsy-fartsy to say so, but it does underline all of the ways that this differs from the mean.

Britnee, you mentioned above that you found the first act which took place during our leads’ respective childhoods to be more endearing than the rest of the film. I agree, although I wasn’t as cold to the rest of it as you were. How would you have preferred to see this play out? What changes would you have made?

Britnee: The romcom-loving side of me would want to see Julien and Sophie get together for good in the dinner scene when he fake proposes to her. That was probably the most upsetting scene in the entire film. The secondhand embarrassment was so bad and made me hate Julien so much. After the proposal, the rest of the film would be a quirky journey to their wedding day. Julien’s father would have a come-to-Jesus moment and embrace his son on his wedding day, letting him know how proud he is of him and how much he loves him. Sophie’s sister would give a heartfelt toast at the reception explaining how she forgives her sister for ruining her wedding cake. Their families would just come together in the comic style of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Basically, I want My Big Fat French Wedding to be a thing.

I don’t want to seem like I don’t appreciate the darkness of Love Me If You Dare, because I do. I just have to be in the right mindset to watch two people lose their minds on a path of destruction.

Lagniappe

Boomer: Man, Julien’s father is such an asshole.

Britnee: Part of me still doesn’t think that Julien and Sophie really died in the end. It’s very unlikely that they lived, but based on all the other times I thought they died when they didn’t, I just don’t trust them.

Brandon: I do think this movie’s greatest asset is the unpredictability of its storytelling, which makes it feel as if anything is possible from minute to minute, as long as that anything is emotionally cruel. What impresses me most about that unpredictability is that the storyline still manages to maintain a clear, logical progression in its tone & aesthetic; it’s not all chaos. The dreamlike pop-up book sequence Britnee described feels totally in tune with the characters’ childhood imaginations, which later give way to the visual tropes of action thrillers, romantic melodramas, and wedding ring jewelry commercials as they grow into adults. I also greatly admire the trajectory of its central romance, which does not shy away from the impossible scenario these two characters have set up for themselves where “Happily ever after” cannot be achieved without a few casualties, if not the end of the world. For all of the film’s visual showiness as an excited director’s dressed-to-impress debut, its value as an off-kilter feat in morbid, fluid storytelling is what really makes it a gem.

CC: I’m really glad this film held up! Once I saw Amélie a couple years later, it obviously replaced Love Me If You Dare as my favorite darkly whimsical French film, but this still holds up on revisit.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
April: Brandon presents Local Legends (2013)
May: Britnee presents Belizaire the Cajun (1986)
June: Boomer presents Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)

-The Swampflix Crew

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The Gleaners and I (2002)

In the post-Katrina 2000s, I was an idealistic college student with a very silly (and very sloppy) punk band called Trash Trash Trash. It was kind of a concept art project involving politically absurdist songs about art & trash, hazmat suit costumes decorated with crude finger paint, and VHS cassettes of images that alternated between camcorder documents of crude art & piles of garbage we would find around New Orleans. As a group, the eight of us were a total, incohesive mess, but could passably put on a fun show while conveying a highly specific (even if abstract) political philosophy. A decade or so later, it was mind-blowing to see that exact philosophy projected back at me on the big screen, especially in a documentary that preempted Trash Trash Trash by several years.

Watching Agnès Varda’s trash-obsessed documentary The Gleaners & I was like gazing into a time-traveling mirror, back to where my mind was in the early 2000s. The French New Wave innovator gushes early in the film about the affordability & portability of digital camcorder technology. She addresses the significant overlap between trash & art and how the excess of capitalist runoff is reabsorbed as a kind of Natural bounty that can be harvested for sustenance. She dumpster dives with French crust punks, tickles herself with silly puns, and (no joke) fucking raps about the politics of trash in a key montage of broken televisions. The only component of Trash Trash Trash missing from this prophetic vision is the finger-painted hazmat suits, but I must admit I was so overwhelmed by the other similarities that I may have missed them. The punkest thing about all this philosophical overlap is that she not only beat us to it, but she did so in her 70s, not as some idealistic college student.

In a way, The Gleaners & I is more of an essay film than it is a traditional documentary. The thesis Varda posits is that modern trash-digging (whether for found art objects, rescued furniture, “expired” food, or otherwise) is just a natural extension of ancient traditions of harvesting. French law allows for people to collect left-behind fruits & vegetables after farmers’ proper harvest season, so that left-behind food does not go to waste. It’s a long-established (and traditionally feminine) practice known as “gleaning.” Varda documents the myriad of ways the practice of gleaning has evolved in modern life. She interviews the few (largely destitute) communities who still glean in a tradition sense, the farmers who either encourage or deliberately hinder their activity, lawyers who protect its legality, and so on. Once she extends these interviews to the homeless people, crust punks, and artistic weirdos who dig through urban garbage for their own modernized form of gleaning (as well as interrogating her own impulses to rescue found objects from the trash) the political point she’s laying out about modern capitalist excess becomes more esoteric & philosophical, but also much more distinct & cinematic.

Varda’s recent Oscar-nominated Faces Places is a great reminder that she’s still a playfully subversive political mind who can deliver high caliber cinema without any of the fussy snobbery associated with the art form. I loved being introduced to her aesthetic through that endearing work, but its D.I.Y. punk ancestor The Gleaners & I hit me much closer to my heart. I can’t believe that there was this succinct of a summation of my personal philosophies as a silly-ass, trash-obsessed punk idealist in my youth floating around in the ether and I completely missed it until now. I went into The Gleaners & I respecting Varda as a kind of mascot for unfussy, D.I.Y cinema with a genuine subversive streak, but left it believing her to be more of a kindred spirit, someone who truly gets what it means to live among the capitalist refuse of this trash island Earth. I’m too much in awe of her very existence to say much more.

-Brnadon Ledet

Faces Places (2017)

Faces Places is simultaneously the best and the worst introduction to Agnès Varda’s sensibilities as a filmmaker that I can imagine. At nearly 90 years old, Varda is decades past her youthful heyday as an undervalued innovator in the shadows of the male-dominated French New Wave movement. Faces Places is also her collaboration with a younger artist, diluting Varda’s voice with outsider input. At the same time, though, the film functions as a thorough introduction to Varda’s history as an auteur. It’s a project that combines her multimedia interests in instillation art, photography, and both documentary & narrative filmmaking. It touches on her past personal relationships with artists like Jacques Demy & Jean-Luc Godard and continues her mentorship of those familiar names with her young co-director, a photographer named JR. I was unfamiliar with Varda’s creative voice at the start of Faces Places, but left feeling as if I had known her my entire life. The film is built on the back of her continued legacy, but invites you to dig deeper into her catalog instead of locking out the uninitiated. I’m simultaneously embarrassed that Varda’s 25th feature film was the first I had ever seen and delighted to meet her in such an all-encompassing, immediately lovable crash course.

Faces Places is nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards, but that category selection is something of cheat. The main subject documented in the film is the blossoming friendship & artistic collaboration between Varda & JR, but it’s a narrative expressed mostly through staged comedic routines. They discuss meeting as admirers of each other’s art (especially as connoisseurs of photography & mural work), poke fun at the cartoonish differences between their bodies (JR is youthful & lanky, while Varda is a tiny, exhausted thing), trade bad puns, pontificate musings on the nature of cats, etc. These exchanges are consistently adorable, but artificially (and intentionally) performative. Where the film’s true documentary streak emerges is in the pop art instillation project the pair collaborate on. Varda & JR travel through small villages in the French countryside (in a magical truck that doubles as a large-format Polariod camera), looking to meet & document the “real people” who live there. It’s a project that’s entirely dependent on collaboration & spontaneity. The genuine, unplanned conversations missing in Varda’s interactions with JR are abundant among the various subjects they meet on the road.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Faces Places is the way it uses its adorable surface of kittens, friendship, and shameless puns to hide its deep well of radical politics. Varda & JR are very particular about the small-village subjects they select to interview, painting a portrait of a Europe composed almost entirely of farmers, factory workers, coal miners, waitresses, shipping dock unions, and other working-class archetypes. They pay homage to these subjects by blowing their portraits up to towering proportions, then pasting them to the exteriors of spaces they’ve historically occupied. More importantly, they involve these impromptu collaborators directly in the creative process, so they can feel just as much pride as artists as they feel as subjects. The project often feels like a playful, wholesome version of graffiti, which is always a political act (even if rarely this well-considered). Watching Varda & JR politely negotiate their lack of permits with cops or reconcile with the impermanence of the paper & paste art instillations they erect in these communities doesn’t exactly feel like burn-the-system-to-the-ground radicalism in the moment. However, the types of voices they choose to amplify with the project and the grand public displays they make out of undervalued people’s basic existence has a subversive nature to it all the same.

It would be easy to pigeonhole Faces Places as a more wholesome Exit Through the Gift Shop or an aggressively quirky travel diary, but Varda & JR deliver something much more unique than those descriptors imply. Touches of Buñuel surrealism, “wonderfully disgusting” gross-outs, art history lectures, working-class politics, and vaudevillian irreverence subvert & distort what you might typically expect from a well-behaved, crowd-pleasing documentary from a director near the end of her career. Faces Places is a loving self-portrait of a beautiful friendship, as well as a crash course history in the multimedia achievements Varda has tirelessly striven towards over the decades. I’m excited to dive into the more youthful, combative films of her distant past now that I’ve tested the waters, but also grateful to have been introduced to her through such a complexly endearing work. It’s an achievement that feels like it’s been a long time coming, even though Varda’s voice & I have just met.

-Brandon Ledet

Swagger (2017)

Music video director Olivier Babinet borrows a deliberate style over substance ethos from his preferred medium and brings it to its most unlikely onscreen home: the documentary feature. With Swagger, Babinet profiles the lives & personalities of eleven school age immigrants living in French housing projects, some first generation and some second. He offers their musings on topics as wide ranging as love, death, pop culture, poverty, and the surveillance state as mostly raw information, free of context, only stepping in to add music video style visuals as onscreen flavor. Swagger is like a Rodney Ascher film in this way, broadcasting instead of editorializing, except that it focuses on humanizing disadvantaged communities living under the radar in France instead of exploring more trivial topics like The Shining and sleep paralysis. It’s an approach that’s sure to be as divisive here as it is in Ascher’s features, The Nightmare & Room 237, but if you’re onboard with the formula it feels like a new, exciting kind of postmodern filmmaking.

One of the more alienating aspects of Swagger is its lack of a narrative structure. The eleven children interviewed speak in meandering, conversational tangents with no real story to tell other than who they are and how they see the world. Some of these tangents include insightful information about their daily lives in the insular housing projects communities: how lookouts inform drug dealers of encroaching police scrutiny, how outlandish fashion affords them a sense of self identity, how they’ve never seen a “person of French stock” in their entire lives – living entirely among “blacks & Arabs.” Some tangents are much less informational, including musings on the Obamas, the Fast & Furious franchise, and a lengthy recital of seasons’ worth of American soap opera plotlines. When considered as a whole, the interviews offer a detailed portrait of what a school age immigrant looks & sounds like in modern France. That may not immediately seem like the kind of political documentary filmmaking that challenges cultural hegemony, but the way it humanizes and gives voice to a section of the population that’s usually ignored or vilified without a second’s thought is nothing short of radical.

Speaking of things that are rad, the most striking aspect of Swagger is the way it frames these kids’ musings in a music video context. They strut their fashion in slow motion as if the doc were an update of the historical piece Fresh Dressed. Drone shots of the housing projects and the nearby suburbs look too good to be real, with one especially smooth transition from the exterior to the interior of one of the kids’ bedrooms looking like MCU-level CGI. Nature footage of owls and bunnies contrast with an industrial dance sequence involving welding masks & The Robot choreography. In an opening Facebook post of a fashion-conscious selfie, one of the kids describes themselves as “too stylish for your eyes.” Babinet’s visual style lives up to that promise, framing Swagger more like a narrative feature than a digital age documentary (because of its subject matter it feels like Girlhood in particular). He often allows this imagery to overpower the interviews that populate the audio. In one particular sequence, he even turns the film into a glimpse of a sci-fi dystopian future, solely because the kids’musings took him there. Some audiences are going to be turned off by those choices early & often, but as someone who values a style over substance ethos in almost all cases, I find it to be a bold, satisfying vision.

The lack of a narrative structure at the center of Swagger is only amplified by the way Babinet refuses to rigidly segment his interviews, allowing the reaction shots of one kid to seep in to inform the dialogue of another. I think he finds an interesting common ground between his subjects in this way and Swagger ultimately does offer a modern immigration portrait, even if flashy & loosely told. Its main goal is not necessarily to inform. It’s likely no surprise to most people that these kids help their parents translate & navigate their official correspondence or that their large housing buildings are eyesores that lead to massive white flight (along with other factors like, I dunno, racism & xenophobia). If Swagger were more interested in that kind of informational diatribe it would likely have included talking heads interviews with adult activists, urban planners, historians, and so on. Instead, it chooses to allow the kids to speak for themselves without offering an editorial analysis on what they report. I don’t have a term to describe this documentary style yet outside Ascher-esque, since it is so new & so foreign to the way these stories are typically told, but its highly stylized, Anthropology-style reliance on oral history documentation has me excited for the future of the medium.

-Brandon Ledet

Girlhood (2015)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

Despite what you might expect from a film about roving packs of French girl gangs, Girlhood is far from an on-the-nose melodrama with explicit messages about the powder keg of poverty & puberty. Instead, it’s a brutally melancholy slow burner about an especially shitty youth with dwindling options for escape. It’s far more open-ended & hazy than I was anticipating, opting more for a gradual unravelling than a grand statement. It’s that aversion to closure & moralizing that makes the film special when it easily could’ve gone through the motions of rote Lifetime Movie schmaltz.

That’s not to say that Girlhood is all grays, haze, and sadness. It certainly does have it’s . . . bright, shining moments. Specifically, the scene where the central gang is dancing to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” alone in a fancy hotel room while sporting shoplifted dresses is a transcendent dream of a respite that briefly shakes the dull pastel voids of the movie’s housing projects in favor of an intense music video chic. In that moment it’s not at all difficult to see why the protagonist Marieme would choose gang life over her only other viable options: vocational school or a life of housekeeping. Besides the “Diamonds” scene & several other moments of otherworldly dance parties, Girlhood also shines in its opening sequence, in which two female football teams clash to the sounds of minimal synth in an oddly beautiful, but violent display that sets the tone for what’s to come. As the football match lets out, the girls roam in a cloud of raucous chatter.

These dreamlike escapes are always fleeting, though. The group gradually splinters & the scene shifts from an unbridled, decidedly feminine joy to a quietly fearful trip through a very literal, very dangerous-feeling male gaze. A lot of what lurks in Girlhood‘s pensive silence is an unspoken oppression & the threat of violence from the few men in Marieme’s life, particularly her older brother. Torn between fending for herself & protecting her younger siblings, Marieme finds herself in the vulnerable position of not qualifying for high school and decides, rather quickly, to trade in her makeshift football gang for a much more purposeful gang of loveable reprobates. It’s through the empowerment of her new crew that she builds the confidence to occupy traditionally male spaces: night time public streets, fistfights, sexual exploration, etc. The meek quiet of that opening football sequence is quickly supplanted by the rush of Marieme getting whatever she wants through brute force & the solidarity of her newfound sisterhood. The problem is that Marieme is too smart to play the girl gang game forever. As much fun as she has with the scene’s selfies & shoplifting, pocket knives & smart phones, she begins to plan for the future, which is about as dangerously unsure & open-ended in the film as it is in real life.

Much of the Girlhood‘s back half deliberately raises more questions than it dares to answer as its protagonist tries to figure out exactly who she is & what she wants. Due to an unfortunate (but perhaps intentional, marketing-wise) similarities in titles, Girlhood has of course suffered a lot of comparisons to Richard Linklater’s technically impressive, but (in this reviewer’s eyes) messy at best in practice Boyhood. Given Boyhood‘s never-ending need to wrap everything up tightly in a neat little package, the two films couldn’t be further apart in their approaches to capturing the essence of youth on film. Girlhood has no interest in telling a complete story, but rather indulges in soaking in the cold, grey pastels of a life drifting through housing projects and the inevitable doom of the pull between personal & familial obligations that poverty & shrinking options for escape can often inflict upon far too many young people. Girlhood’s disinterest in closure is a commendable impulse with thoroughly satisfying results, even if those results don’t include straight answers or an A to B narrative. It’s less of a complete story than it is a solemn mood piece, a melancholy tone poem with occasional dance breaks and much-needed gasps for air.

-Brandon Ledet