Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 19, 2015 5:13 pm 
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Cloying generosity

In My Friend Victoria Jean-Paul Civeyrac, who is on the faculty of the elite Paris cinema institute La Fémis, has produced a glossy, sweet, gentle adaptation of "Victoria and the Staveneys," a story by Doris Lessing about race, class, and privilege that focuses on the relationship that develops by chance between a poor orphaned black girl and a well-off liberal-left white family, transposing everything from London to Paris. The eight-year-old black girl, Victoria, has no one to pick her up from her local school one afternoon when her aunt falls ill and is taken to the hospital, and Edouard of the Staveney family (now called Sauvinet), takes her home for the night. This brief experience is an awakening for the girl to luxury and comfort that stays with her; later she is astonished to learn the Sauvinets' roomy apartment is near her aunt's little one. Victoria remains as in the story "a construct rather than a character" (as a Guardian review put it) but the white family doesn't seem so clearly "skewered" as by Lessing. It's true, the mother still says she "always wanted a black child," and her husband (played by the always slightly odd Pascal Greggory) uses politically incorrect pet names, and their younger son Thomas fetishizes black women. Somehow it all seems rather adorable. A constant voice-over by Victoria's best friend adds a cozy Nouvelle Vague note. The story is beautifully told by Civerac; it's just lost some of its bite and gains French gloss.

Knowing where the Sauvinet family lives, Victoria (played as an adult by Guslagie Malanga) keeps an eye on their building and sees the younger brother Thomas (who always wanted to kiss her at school) grow up. She lacks motivation, drops out of lycée and takes a succession of jobs. It's her adopted sister and best friend Fanny (Nadia Moussa), the narrator, who goes on to study literature at the Sorbonne and wants to become a writer. When Thomas (Pierre Andrau) turns up at the record shop where Victoria has found a home, she tells him who she is, he asks her out and they become lovers. It's not a profound love but after they've drifted apart by mutual agreement when he goes off to college in the US, she discovers she is pregnant with his child, whom she chooses to have, and calls Marie. Later she has a black husband, Sam (Tony Harrisson), and they have a little boy, Charlie (Khadim Ka). Sam, a musician, whom she loves, is always away and dies in a car crash.

It isn't until seven years after Marie's birth that Victoria decides to tell Thomas he has a daughter. Not only is Thomas delighted with this news, and adoring of Marie, assuming his responsibilities as her father, but his whole family rallies round embracing both Victoria and Marie now as members of the family. Only Edouard, who's become an international big shot, is suspicious and insists on paternity being proven. But eventually he too accepts (paternity indeed being proven) and apologizes for his initial behavior. The heart of the film/story is the way the Sauvinets' means and their embrace of Marie (while ignoring Charlie) make Victoria feel her control kindly but inexorably usurped, swept away by the power of wealth, privilege and race. A crux is the old school in the neighborhood where Thomas and Edouard, then students there too, first met Victoria, and where Marie now goes. The school is a tougher choice for well-off liberals now, with weapons and drugs added, and the Sauvinets want to send Marie to a "good" school. Victoria agrees but rejects a boarding school, though knowing a boarding school is in the future.

One may feel sometimes that the Sauvinets have taken over not only Marie, but the film itself; but one has to recognize that despite Victoria's impoverished origins, she is a French native, not an immigrant with a grim past. Even if it may feel too glossy and too gentle in its depiction of the Sauvinets, its educated black woman's polished narration too lulling, My Friend Victoria is still subtly provocative. Civeyrac's well-written and edited film, coming from a somewhat schematic short story, is lightweight at its core, but richly textured and pleasing in its surfaces. It's certainly far different from his symbolic, fable-like work, exemplified by his first feature Through the Forest (NYFF 2005); evidently similar in its more realistic approach to his second feature, Young Girls in Black (2010), a film about teen angst.

My Friend Victora/Mon amie Victoria, 95 mins, debuted at Namur and showed at the London Film Festival. French theatrical release 31 December 2014 (AlloCiné press rating 3.4). Screened for this review as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center-UniFrance joint series Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in March 2015 (North American premiere). US theatrical release 4 Dec. 2015 (NYC, IFC Center).

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