Here is a film that had both Variety and Screendaily railing against its pretensions in the face of a prestige prize win – the Golden Leopard at Locarno. Writer-director – and in this instance, leading man – Jean-Claude Brisseau is an auteur of the ‘second wave’ of French directors after Godard and co. Born in 1944 he began to direct in the 1970s but is generally known for just two titles, Celine (1992), nominated for a prize at Berlin and Secret Things (2002) which Cahiers du cinéma selected as its film of the year alongside Kiarostami’s Ten. Secret Things was an ‘erotic thriller’ and Brisseau was later fined and given a suspended sentence for sexual harassment of two of the women he auditioned for the film. He then released a film with a narrative based around a similar scenario to that which brought about the prosecution. This might explain why, when he eventually turned away from erotic narratives, he made a low-budget film using his own savings (around £50,000) which was immediately in the black after its Locarno win since the prize money eclipsed the budget.
Fans of Secret Things (which even Roger Ebert reviewed as an enjoyable and well-made sex film) will find that although there are a couple of nude scenes in The Girl From Nowhere, the narrative does not develop as a cynical viewer might expect given the pairing of an old man and a young girl. Michel (played by the director) is a retired maths teacher who lives alone after his wife’s death 29 years earlier. He occupies a spacious Paris apartment he inherited via his wife’s wealthy family (Brisseau’s own flat – so you get to see his tastes in books and films). He spends his time reading and watching films and writing a book questioning philosophical and religious beliefs. Disturbed by a commotion in the stairwell outside his apartment one day he discovers a young woman being beaten up by a man who then runs off. He takes the young woman into his apartment. She is clearly injured but refuses both doctor and police. He decides to look after her until she recovers, but then finds out that he needs her – specifically to help him with his book, but also because she reminds him of his past.
The low-budget keeps the action restricted more or less to the apartment and the surrounding streets and much of the film comprises conversations between the two principals. If you don’t like talky French flicks this may well put you off. Personally I found both characters interesting and engaging. The digital camerawork by David Chambille using mostly available light is accomplished and presented in 16:9 framings. The music track is used sparingly and overall this is a well-made little film. Brisseau has taught film at the main French film school, FEMIS and on a technical level the film is a good advertisement for the possibilities of low-budget films. The only time I was really conscious of the lack of budget was when the plot requires an outside shot to be still without wind – but the wind in the background is clearly visible ruffling hair etc. The other facet of the film that made Variety and Screendaily so irate appears to be the fact that Brisseau is not a professional actor. This never occurred to me watching the film. I thought both principals were fine. Virginie Legeay clearly knows the director well since she was at FEMIS and she worked with him on his 2006 film The Exterminating Angels – the one based on his legal problems. On that film and this one she is also credited as Assistant Director.
So what goes on between the old man and the young girl? I won’t spoil the narrative pleasures, only reveal that there are moments of ‘paranormal’ activity – quite well presented and sometimes quite disturbing. It’s also noticeable that Legeay’s character is called ‘Dora’, famously one of Freud’s case studies. Michel is reading Freud (but ‘the girl’ does not exhibit the same behaviour as Freud’s Dora). In general thematic terms, the conversation is about loneliness, memory, dealing with growing old, romance and relationships – issues which the two characters can discuss and possibly offer forms of support to each other.
There are two reasons why I would recommend this film. First, it is a well-made film with intelligent and interesting characters that certainly kept my interest. The paranormal incidents added to the intrigue. Second, the whole venture challenges the role of film critics. What makes a film ‘pretentious’? For that matter what makes for ‘good acting’? Is it indulgence to cast yourself in a role or simply pragmatic if you don’t have the funds to pay an actor? Is ‘cod philosophy’ a bad thing in constructing a film narrative? You can watch the film yourself and decide.
The Girl From Nowhere toured the UK and US as part of the French Cinema export programme ‘Rendezvous With French Cinema 2013’ but it hasn’t got a UK cinema release. Instead a DVD is released by Matchbox on July 8. The distributor has gone, perhaps unsurprisingly, for a cover emphasising the eroticism angle, but this is misleading about the narrative as a whole. The image refers to one of the ‘paranormal’ moments in the narrative.
The DVD is available from Amazon and other online retailers.