Les femmes des ombres (Female Agents, France 2008)

From left, Déborah François, Sophie Marceau, Marie Gillain and Julie Depardieu

This is the ‘Summer of French Film’ in the UK with one French film released each weak for a couple of months. I saw this for several reasons, not least because Déborah François figured in the supporting roles. Careful not to learn anything in advance, I told my companion that I expected a ‘romp’, something akin to The Dirty Dozen but with French female agents. At the end of the screening his first words were: “Well they’ve certainly changed romps”. I agree. On reflection, this is a highly conventional and rather old-fashioned war adventure movie, but we both enjoyed the film and there is something different about it. I have to confess that the main attraction may well be that simply being a French production makes it more interesting than a similar British or American film.

The other surprise at the end of the film was to discover that the central character (played by Sophie Marceau) was based on a real agent, a woman who died aged 98 only in 2004. I wonder why the film’s promotion didn’t make more of this? The plot concerns four Frenchwomen recruited by SOE in England in late May 1944. Their task is to rescue a British geologist from a German military hospital in occupied Northern France. His work in France is part of the D-Day preparations and they must get to him before the SS. The plot is then complicated by a number of other factors involving important personal relationships. The team is led by a French male officer, the brother of the senior female agent (Marceau) and one of the women had previously been engaged to the SS officer who becomes the chief villain (brilliantly played by the multi-lingual Moritz Bleibtreu).

The plot is ludicrous of course, although presumably some of it is based on real events. But then, this is a mainstream film. Its main task is to present five glamorous women (the fifth is already in France) in situations that generate exciting action sequences. It does this very well. The women are indeed glamorous and the action is well-staged with all the cast performing well. I’m puzzled by reviews that suggest the film is ‘mediocre’. If you want simple entertainment this is definitely worth the ticket price. Beyond that, the film raises some interesting questions about distribution and audience expectations as well as issues about appropriate visual style and narrative structure.

To take the look of the film first, I’m not sure if this was a digital print but it was amazingly ‘clean’ and all the hardware on display looked fresh out of the paintshop. My expert companion was impressed by the buses and trains, especially in the pre-credits sequence in a railway yard. The problem, of course, is that unless CGI is used, there aren’t enough vintage vehicles to create crowded street scenes. I’m glad not to have the CGI used too obviously. There are attempts at a form of expressionism, especially in the final sequences where a confrontation on a station platform is conducted in thick clouds of steam – but this rather adds to the sense of unreality. There is a lack of ‘atmosphere’ somehow. Inevitably the film is going to be compared to Jean-Pierre Melville’s L’Armée des ombres, not least because of the similarity in (French) titles. Melville’s film was low on budget but high on ‘authenticity’ – I’ll have to go back and check on how it looked. What I’m reminded of is the ordinariness of the great Lino Ventura when preparing to be parachuted back into France from England. He has his glasses taped in place with sticking plaster. It’s hard to imagine the ‘female agents’ in similar guise.

What’s intriguing about the distribution of the film (handled in the UK by Revolver which had a big success with Tell No One last year) is how it has been seen as a specialised film, just because of the subtitles. I think that popular French films, which were once (up to the mid 1970s?) distributed widely in the UK in local circuit cinemas, are now very difficult to handle. Dubbing is no longer deemed acceptable, so a mainstream audience is not really given access. The arthouse crowd correctly spots that these are not ‘serious’ films and turns away sniffily. I wonder what kind of reception popular films like Viva Maria (1965) with Jeanne Moreau and Brigitte Bardot in revolutionary Mexico, would receive today?

Female Agents opened on 49 prints in the UK and averaged £1,396 per screen – not bad, but no good either. 49 prints seems to me a bit of a compromise, but it’s a tough call. Tell No One opened on 55 screens for an average of over £3,000 per screen at about the same time in 2007. Revolver have tried to repeat the trick and to be fair the films are comparable. They are both genre pics with mainstream appeal, but I fear Female Agents just looks old-fashioned. It’s not ‘cool’, but it’s played with conviction and without cynicism. I think it’s quite refreshing to find a film that believes in heroism and doesn’t fudge the ending. I’m also inclined to look up some of Sphie Marceau’s earlier films – she really is very good in this.

2 responses to “Les femmes des ombres (Female Agents, France 2008)

  1. I was left with an ambivalent reaction at the end of this film, and my companion’s first comment was “Why didn’t that work?” I agreed that, as you described above, it had all the ingredients of a first rate Second World War retrospective film. It certainly had a worthy intention, with the honouring of these relatively unsung heroines- although the plot was clearly too contrived and melodramatic to be based very closely on the facts. Whilst films don’t have to slavishly follow historical accuracy, it is interesting how some you allow artistic licence and suspension of your own disbelief. I feel that happens when you feel that these films strike at the emotional truth of the characters and their situation. Films recently, that spring to mind, are Sophie Scholl, Fateless or The Counterfeiters – films from different countries with very different aesthetics and stories. Somehow, the aesthetics were all in the service of the characters in these films – the opening sequences of the first film reveal nothing of characters’ inner world, but the interaction between the brother and sister established so strongly their bond and their passion for their cause. Female Agents seemed to try for this emotional realism, but for me there were too many strands and backstories for the characters to emotionally convince in the same way. This came home with the meeting of the Nazi officer and his long lost love – despite Bleibtrau’s convincing performance generally – the outcome of that meeting was somehow thrown away, without an explanation of the (assumed) trauma it would have caused.
    I agree now that the action set-pieces are really well done, and quite thrilling at times. It just didn’t hang together as a whole. The sequence where Déborah François’s character assumes a Christ-like post was redolent with heavy symbolism of matyrdom, but did not chime with what we knew of that character of my response to her.
    For some reason, I found myself thinking of Cartier-Bresson’s photograph from the end of the war, where a Belgium woman is being denounced as a Gestapo collaborator – no heroes in that photo, but somehow in that one still image so much communicated about the effects of war and its realities. Somehow, Female Agents despite some great performances did not seem to achieve that same emotional impact.

  2. In today’s Observer, Philip French reports that a woman contacted him to find out what happened as she had had to leave a screening of Female Agents after a particularly vicious torture scene. I think that this is part of the “it didn’t work” aspect of the film – the mixture of modern graphic violence with old-fashioned storytelling.

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