While the official jury opted for a long German joke, the deliberation for the FIPRESCI award in Stockholm transpired in, literally, a matter of seconds; the choice was that clear. As our citation states, “Elle est des nôtres” is an ambitious and extremely promising debut, a moving symbosis between its director, Siegrid Alnoy, and her lead actor, Sasha Andrès. Titled after a populist French song (and thus poorly translated to English as “For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow”), “Elle et des nôtres” resonates with a cultish ring of unwanted belonging; she is one of us, she is one of us. In a way, Siegrid Alnoy’s first feature, which premiered at the Critics Week earlier this year at Cannes – and has proven to be one of that awful festival’s true discoveries – is about possibly the most banal yet damaging cult of them all: human society in the early 21st century. Her main character, Christine Blanc (musician Sasha Andrès, remarkable in her first feature film role) is appropriately named: she is a blank. Perpetually clothed in the same red business suit, Christine toils in limbo as a temp for bosses who don’t know her name, aspiring to full-time employment and social acceptance in her suburban Annecy environment, all indistinct malls, glass office walls and stifling sterility, approaching her daily interactions with the false veneer of politeness.
But something isn’t quite right with Christine: as she stands in the corporate lunchroom, looking for a place to sit, her hands shake uncontrollably as she holds her lunch tray. She seems too eager to approach her superiors, and ends up behaving inappropriately for a part-time worker. When she invites her temp agent, Patricia, over for a pot-luck dinner, she prepares a spread that would make Martha Stewart blush. And her boyfriend, Jean Michel, is either always away or at his business. We sense that something terrible is going to happen, and it does. Patricia gives Christine a present, a tightly fitting green two-piece bathing suit to match the one she wears to a local swimming pool. The awkward manner with which Christine creeps through the shower and around the pool’s exterior is a factor of her perception of standing out from the crowd – even though this isn’t true for the people playing who shove her into the water, unaware of her presence, faceless carousers who push Christine over the edge towards what amounts to a psychic break for both her and the film.
This sense of unease is heightened by the anxious way Andrès carries herself, and Alnoy photographs her: often frontally, expressionlessly posed like the owls she tells Patricia she collects as a way of bonding, as if the camera is her (Lacanian) mirror, and the audience must confront their degree of kinship. Alnoy begins the film with disorienting shots of the suburban landscape, and we’re uncertain as to their origin: we only hear heavy breathing mixed on top of a Lynchian drone. The first few times these scenes appear they seem dreamy, floating, a combination of the banal and the otherworldly; only later does Alnoy reveal these to be shots from Christine’s point of view as she’s taking driving lessons – she’s 35 and still hasn’t passed her driving test. This sense of never fully grasping Christine’s character or her actions, even though we are constantly with her, constantly given her point of view, haunts the rest of the film. The careful, precise, poses of Christine staring at the audience become a kind of staring contest conducted by Alnoy, to see who dares to blink first. And she simply refuses to back down, adding another layer on top of the set-up, so that the film’s second half becomes even more elusive if one seeks a decisive closure or psychological diagnosis.
Christine is a simple, undistinguished molecule on the outside of an impenetrable nucleus, and the tragedy of the film results from our awareness that, try as she might, society is a system that she cannot penetrate. (The film begins with a quote from Dostoyevsky’s “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.”) More than alienation or solitude, “Elle est des nôtres” takes absence as its subject, on any number of levels. Along with being absent from the working world, Christine is absent from social relations, from her family and, most of all, typical to recent French cinema, her body – Alnoy often shoots Andrès’s body in various states of discomfort or separateness, at times lopping her head out of frame (her body is that which is truly “present” in the world, the shell in which she feels extreme discomfort, the shell from which she can never escape). In the film’s pseudo-Hitchcockian reveal scene, Christine confides to a police officer who takes an extra-curricular interest in her personality that, at one point, a man told her that while her size and her face are adult, her soul is an absolute child. It’s true, she says, it’s hard for her to be with grown-ups, so she decided to be polite and sincere.
Alnoy and Andrès present Christine in a way that prevents us from writing off her ailment as merely that of a borderline personality experiencing a breakdown. Though Christine is placed in an enigmatic narrative where reality and fantasy might merge, or where Christine’s relations to her external world begin to disintegrate, Alnoy and Andrès find beauty in the brutality. Radical yet sympathetic, “Elle est des nôtres” is deeply moving because of the palpable sense of the potential for this beauty to be fulfilled, and experienced, and how some people find it dangles beyond their grasp. The estimable contribution of Christophe Pollock’s cinematography, whose glacial fastidiousness is an integral part of Alnoy’s mise en scène, counterbalancing Christine’s mental disarray, should not be overlooked. But the film’s real triumph is how Alnoy and Andrès create a character who both pushes us back and draws us into her tragedy, elicits our sympathy while disgusting us, makes us want to laugh (at her), and cry (for her). When they leave us with the sight of Christine sitting alone, in a car, as night falls, and an ethereal light glows in the car’s interior – emanating, perhaps, from that wounded soul who by the film’s end has become one of us and one with us – they have already shone as two new stars on French cinema’s horizon.