Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Mar 08, 2019 3:41 am 
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Vérité comedy about homeless women and their frustrated advocates

Louis-Julien Petit is a French heir to Ken Loach whose latest film about poor people has been a crowd pleaser well received by the winter season French audience. His previous one, Discount, was about supermarket employees who steal and resell goods in revolt against being laid off and replaced by automated pay stations. So it's not surprising that this time, inspired by Claire Lajeunie's non-fiction book Sur la route des invisibles , he focuses on a group of social workers who respond to the closing of their homeless women's day center (known as l’Envol) for being unprofitable by illegally requisitioning a vacant warehouse to replace it, and developing a much more elaborate than normal program of empowerment and training for the women at the new location.

Welding together both pro and authentic cast members, Petit has defined an engaging topic informed by his personal passion and a lengthy period he spent in the field. However there is faltering in the treatment. An emphasis on hilarity and uplift keeps the action from digging as deep as it should into the painful and difficult lives of the women depicted. At some point the whole structure loses its way in a series of entertaining but increasingly unhinged improvisations. The aim clearly is to wind up with feel-good celebratory action. And that happens. But somewhere along the line the movie, though enjoyable, runs off the rails, and its good social intentions get lost in the giddy hilarity.

The spirit behind the film is right, though, and the action is informed by the presence of a panoply of colorful characters whose essence is authentic. Real homeless women were engaged to depict versions of themselves.

There are, moreover, two sets of "invisible ones" here. The "SDF's", the homeless ones, are played with abandon by real non-actors. But there is also the core of social workers, played by professional actors, Aubrey Lamy, Corinne Masiero, Noémie Lvovsky, and Déborah Lukumuena. Their characters, too, turn out to be essentially invisible: poorly paid, discouraged, and at war on a daily basis with a heartless and unresponsive bureaucracy that keeps them from providing the kind of help they have in mind for their charges. However, Petit falters also in his depiction of the social workers, making the picture overwrought and containing unnecessary plot lines like a younger brother who lacks the courage to propose to his girlfriend, and a ditsy bourgeois wife who steals from her house to supply material for the training course.

It all takes place in a gray and unspecified northern French city. Once the social workers move their homeless women to the clandestine location, they seek aggressively to train and inspire them to become hirable, because the claim was that without at hires, the SDF's showed evidence of stagnation, and without progress, the center did not prove its right to exist.

It's the custom to allow the ladies to take pseudonyms so many are called names like "Edith Piaf," "Simone Weil," "La Ciciollina," 'Salma Hayek," "Vanessa Paradis," or "Brigitte Macron." First among the homeless women is Chantal (Adolpha Van Meerhaeghe) , who's learned carpentry, electronics, and other things while in prison for the murder of her husband. Her fix-it skills make her potentially hirable, but she keeps blabbing about where she learned her skills and why she was there to every potential employer. It takes Audrey (Audrey Lamy), Manu (Corinne Masiero), Hélène (Noémy Lvovsky) and Angélique (Déborah Lukumuena) a long time to make Chantal understand that not revealing derogatory information that you don't need to reveal is not "lying," and therefore is okay.

Many other colorful women with varied stories emerge in what come across as a series of intense improv sessions, some of which are enlightening, some just goofy. In the end, it is pleasing to see many of the women gain self respect through self-formed training programs at the warehouse, and one by one, some of them becoming hirable. But the actual path by which SDV's might reach this goal doesn't seem so clear, as all is lost in the play-acting and the bypaths exploring the social workers' backgrounds.

Invisibles/Les Invisibles 102 mins., debuted Aug. 2018 at Angoulême; also several other francophone festivals. French theatrical release 9 Jan. 2019 to good reviews (AlloCiné press rating 3.5; viewers, 4.2). Screened for this review as part of the 2018 UniFrance-Film Society of Lincoln Center Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.

There is an article about the film in Variety by Ben Croll; and reviews by Jordan Mintzer in Hollywood Reporter, Lisa Nesselson in Screen Daily, and Kurt Brokow in The Independent. For a view of Invisibles that's rather close to mine, see Christophe Foltzer in Écran Large.

Rendez-Vous showtimes
Thurs. Mar. 7 at 6:15 PM
Q&A with Louis-Julien Peti &, Deborah Lukumuen
Friday, Mar. 8 at 1:30 PM

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