Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 23, 2012 6:34 pm 
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Teen baby club in a French coastal town

From the sister team of Muriel and Delphine Coulin comes this first feature set in their home town of Lorient in Brittany based on a 2008 American news story about 17 girls at a Gloucester, Massachusetts high school who allegedly made a pact to get pregnant and raise their children together. The reporter who wrote the original story later made a documentary revealing there in fact was never any "pregnancy pact" among girls at the school. There were simply 18 unwed girls no older than 16 who got pregnant at Gloucester High that year -- an only slightly higher number than usual. The French film has been well received both for its cautionary social message and its warm performances and several memorable scenes. With its pretty jeunes filles en fleur and its luminous pastels by skilled dp Jean-Louis Vialard (who has worked with Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Christophe Honoré) strongly reminiscent of Joel Meyerowitz's photography classic, Cape Light, this is a film that's easy on the eyes. It seems unfortunate that a film aiming to bring home truths to the French audience is based on a false premise, is thin on background about the girls and lacks follow-up on what happens after the babies are born. Could they not have begun by getting the details right? But whether myth or reality, 17 filles is watchable and thought-provoking.

The town of Lorient has in common with Gloucester being a one-time port that is economically depressed, and teen pregnancies tend to be high among the poor. Another common feature is a lack of realism among pregnant teens about what child rearing will be like. That was true at Gloucester High and it's true among the girls of Lorient. The lycée girls see no future for themselves as adults in their town, and banding together in the intense friendship of teenage girls, they imagine a utopian commune in which they will raise their kids together, free of annoying adult pressure. 17 filles makes clear that this does not happen, though apart from the mishaps that occur to several of the girls, what does happen is not detailed.

In contemporary society poor girls can make their social errors with the firm illusion that they're exercising free will in so doing. And in 17 Girls it's Camille (Louise Griberg of The Class), the prettiest, most clearly Alpha female of the lycée girls, who first proudly announces to her best mates up on the dunes that she's pregnant. She's the trend-setter. When the rejected girl Florence ((Roxanne Duran) claims she's pregnant too, her declaration gets her membership in Camille's five-girl inner circle. Getting pregnant becomes a gesture of defiance and a symbol of belonging to the in-group. The willingness of teenagers to self-sacrifice in order to belong has never been better dramatized.

There are funny scenes, like when a group of girls, once the project to get collectively enceinte has been agreed to, shock a clerk when they buy a large number of pregnancy tests at a pharmacy. As the school nurse, the ubiquitous Noémie Lvovsky (the madam in House of Tolerance and also in Guilty and Farewell, My Queen in 2012's Rendez-Vous) adds a note of bemusement and. . . tolerance. A gathering of school officials debate what the sudden rash of pregnancies means. When confronted by irate parents, who blame the school, the principal (Carlo Brandt) simply insists neither he nor the llycée is responsible.

Meanwhile the individual dramas play out. At a summer dance, girls determine to make boys get them pregnant. Given that the girls in the cast are all pretty, it's not surprising they succeed, except for one who later offers a boy 20, 30, then goes up to 50 euros for him to impregnate her. Camille's single mom (Florence Thomassin) is extremely angry. So are other parents who run a café. There are some good scenes between Camille and her brother, who has become a soldier in Afghanistan. The relationship between Camille and her brother is the only male-female relationship of any depth. Camille has an on-and-off boyfriend who proves loyal at the end, but otherwise no boys are present for the pregnant girls, one of the odd and implausible aspects of the film.

17 Girls was included in the Critics Fortnight at Cannes and received high marks from Paris critics when it entered cinemas December 14, 2011 (an excellent Allociné 3.8 rating). Reservations about the accuracy of the story can't detract from the fact that this is, as the French reviews nearly all say, a first film that is a warm and sunny and justifiably troubling "success." This might be contrasted however with the more probing exploration of teeange girls found in the films of Céline Sciamma (Water Lilies, Tomboy).

Delphine Coulin is also a novelist and her sister Muriel is a documentary filmmaker.

The film is included in the Unifrance-Film Society of Lincoln Center March 1-11, 2012 series, Rendez-Vous with French Cinema. Public screening schedule:

*Fri., March 2, 9:15pm – WRT; *Sat., March 3, 9:30pm – IFC; *Sun., March 4, 1pm - WRT
*In person: Delphine and Muriel Coulin

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