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Noemie Merlant’s Female Friendship Dramedy

Noemie Merlant’s Female Friendship Dramedy

Noemie Merlant, best known beyond France for her performances in Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Todd Field’s Tár, made her debut as a writer-director-actor a few years back with Mi Iubita, mon amour, which starts with a bachelorette party. Merlant offers up another female-solidarity story in the shape of The Balconettes (Les femmes au balcon), a comedy with a very dark streak or a giggly drama depending on how you look at it.

Given at one point that a writer character in the film rejects the supposed rules of storytelling, which require clear acts and so forth, Merlant obviously knows she’s taking risks with a free-form, genre-bending structure, and that’s cool. It’s just a shame that the end product is so loosey-goosey it’s less a bold sui generis experiment than a hot mess.

The Balconettes

The Bottom Line

Everything but the kitchen sink, and not all of it sticks.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Midnight)
Cast: Souheila Yacoub, Sanda Codreanu, Noemie Merlant, Lucas Bravo, Nadege Beausson-Diagne, Christophe Montenez
Director: Noemie Merlant
Screenwriter: Noemie Merlant in collaboration with Celine Sciamma

I hour 34 minutes

Then again, most of the female characters in the film might describe themselves at one point or another as hot messes, especially when misfortunes send them reeling. Operating off a script credited first to Merlant but also “in collaboration with” Sciamma, Merlant crafts a work that sometimes feels quite thought-out, even didactic as it shows women coping with sexual violence. But elsewhere, whole scenes feel totally improvised and random, creating tonal movements that don’t so much shift as lurch, as if tossed by storms at sea.

For example, the film opens with a taut mini-drama that observes abused wife Denise (Nadege Beausson-Diagne) finally snap and silence her vile husband for good. But Denise’s story is effectively just thrown aside as the focus moves on to Denise’s supposedly mousy yet horny neighbor Nicole (Sanda Codreanu). She’s the aforementioned aspiring writer who is working on what sounds like a romance novel and taking advice from a bossy creative writing guru online.

Trying to stay cool in the scorching heat of a summer in Marseilles, Nicole spends a lot of time on the balcony of her high-rise apartment, sometimes bantering at loud volume with her neighbors and sometimes staring hungrily at the hunky guy across the street (Lucas Bravo). Nicole also lives with Ruby (Souheila Yacoub), a cam-girl who live streams in pornographic fashion for private customers. Given to wearing little more than pasties, glue-on plastic jewels and a g-string in public, Ruby is a confidently sexual character who’s also in a polyamorous relationship with a man and woman, seen once in the film and never heard from again.

Soon a third friend, aspiring actor Elise (Merlant herself), rocks up from Paris still dressed like Marilyn Monroe, in an anxious tizzy over her smothering relationship with husband Paul (Christophe Montenez), who won’t stop calling every five minutes. Elise clearly wants out of the marriage but doesn’t have the strength to tell him.

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During the course of an evening’s long-distance flirting, fueled by cocktails and filmed with a constantly mobile, hyperactive camera (Evgenia Alexandrova serves as DP), the three women end up over at the guy across the street’s place. He turns out to be a professional photographer, living in an apartment way more plush and expensive-looking than anyone else’s in the neighborhood, but that’s not too surprising for Marseilles. Much to Nicole’s quiet chagrin, he gloms onto Ruby instead of her, so Nicole and Elise withdraw back across the street so he can take Ruby’s pictures and whatever else can happen.

Rather shockingly for anyone who hadn’t read the publicity beforehand, Ruby shows up the next day covered in blood and practically catatonic, having been raped by the neighbor, a sequence Merlant doesn’t show except in little flash cuts to suggest its violence. But that’s just the start — a horrible accident has occurred, and the women, instead of calling the police, decide to clean up the scene of the crime and pretend nothing’s happened. Meanwhile, Elise finds out she’s actually pregnant, revealed during a gynecological exam that has the director showing off her below-the-belt rig in all its furry glory.

The Balconettes is trying to make the perfectly acceptable point that women shouldn’t be raped or murdered, no matter how much they reveal their bodies and regardless of whatever sort of relationship it is they have with their rapists. (Marital rape also happens here, seen more explicitly than Ruby’s assault.) No one should argue with that, and it’s sort of sweet how body-positive the film is, with Merlant and Yacoub going topless whenever the mood takes their characters, along with a few less svelte extras.

But the film feels more like it’s striking feminist poses than working through serious issues, and the throwing of whatever cinematic material against the wall and waiting to see what sticks is not a strategy that really works here. Too often, The Balconettes feels self-regarding and self-indulgent, taking advantage of slack that most second-time filmmakers would never get cut if they weren’t already movie stars.

By the end, curmudgeonly older viewers may start to feel that Nicole and her friends could do with laying off the cocktails for a while, taking more advice from the creative writing teacher and reading a few books.

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