When it occurred in the early summer of 2004, the bizarre fabrication of an anti-Semitic hate crime in France stirred up torrents of confusion and rage. The supposed victim, a young woman in her twenties known only to the public as “Marie L.,” described her brutal attack by a gang of black and Arabic thugs on the RER Parisian subway trains. She alleged that they mistook her for a Jew, then cut her face and body with a knife, tore her clothes, and drew swastikas on her stomach. When the truth came to light -- the fact that no such attack had occurred, that Marie had evidently assaulted herself with a knife and had drawn the Nazi symbols on her own body -- the young woman experienced extreme social vilification and a brief prison sentence.
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this material lends itself to cinematization, but it could easily have fallen prey to sensationalism or oversimplification in inept hands. In his docudrama exploration of this account, writer-director Andre Techine reveals extreme wisdom and intuition by traveling the opposite route. He consciously relegates the said crime to the final 30 minutes of the film, and keeps the initial accusations of the girl (renamed Jeanne here, and played with acute brilliance by established Gallic actress Emilie Dequenne) and the ensuing media blitz offscreen. That shifts the focus of the narrative to an exploration of Jeanne’s pre-criminal world -- “The Circumstances” (as Techine titles the first of the film’s two chapters) that by default make this saga far more interesting than a ripped-from-the-tabloids chronicle. But the film travels one step beyond this, as well, in its refusal to openly interpret the preceding events for the audience. Instead, it lets us put everything together for ourselves.
Throughout, we’re given very telling but non-definitive insights into Jeanne’s psyche. We witness, for example, Jeanne’s shifty, calculating eyes that wouldn’t put her above a scheme (captured beautifully in a telling close-up on the subway at the outset of the film, as the actress stares knowingly into the camera), and yet paradoxically, also sense her innocence on some level -- the naivete and impressionability that lead her into a self-destructive live-in relationship with a conniving, drug-pushing, tattooed loser, Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle). Franck could be called many things, but an innocent is not one of them, and if he’s nearly sociopathic in the way that he forces himself on Jeanne -- conning a storekeeper out of a set price for some luggage in front of Jeanne, and using this ploy to help buy Jeanne’s affections -- she is equally sociopathic in her willingness to accept Franck’s control and go along for the ride. (“She would do anything I tell her,” Franck admits to the cops at the end.) But Franck neither concocts nor helps Jeanne participate in the crime; that would be too easy, too straightforward and pat.
Instead, he seems to flip a switch in Jeanne, unleashing several theretofore latent aspects of her personality. We witness an erotic energy expressed in a seductive webcam session and lovemaking with Franck, an antisocial angst, and extreme vulnerability, intensified when Franck’s drug pushing leads to bloody violence and Jeanne just barely scrapes through, emotionally scarred and shell-shocked. These elements ultimately merge with a number of other factors: for example, her social alienation, especially from her distant mother (Catherine Deneuve); her sense of a lack of purpose; and hints of loneliness. Still, as negative and disturbing as these qualities are, Jeanne doesn’t lack the ability to feel compassion for the persecuted as well -- as in a telling sequence when Jeanne and her mother witness anti-Semitism on television and tears stream down Jeanne’s face, out of eyeshot from her mother. In other words, we aren’t meant to question the basic empathy, but how the girl ultimately channels it. Working in tandem with Techine, Dequenne projects all of these emotions on a subtle and nuanced level and gives the film credibility and weight.
One additional element also emerges to impart an intriguing layer to this chronicle. Euro screen vet Michel Blanc lends a fine supporting role in the film, as Samuel Bleistein, a wealthy, famous Jewish attorney in Paris, with a romantic history involving Jeanne’s mother. He initially enters the story when his office rejects Jeanne for a secretarial job, and the film digresses with excursions into the Bleistein family. For a time, we question the relevance of these subplots, but Techine interpolates a masterful sequence at the end, where he crosscuts between Jeanne, isolated in her dank prison cell, and the warmth and togetherness of the Bleistein family at Samuel’s 13-year-old grandson’s bar mitzvah. It is doubtful that the director could have conjured up a more telling metaphor for feelings of disenfranchisement in the young woman, for a need to feel a sense of social and cultural belonging by any means possible, no matter how misguided or ham-handed.
The film achieves its greatest success by refusing to streamline the basic scenario, or to compress it into a conventional dramatic framework. Techine hands the audience not a single explanation, but a series of loosely knit, penetrating insights into Jeanne’s emotional core and the social dysfunction of her world. Ultimately, the writer-director explores innumerable aspects of this deeply confused, alienated young woman, and yet preserves the delicacy and intimacy of her story -- making the film as empathetic as it is emotionally overwhelming.
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