This unusual film by Jeanne Herry was completely successful for me and one of the best films I saw in Glasgow. It’s unusual as what I would term a ‘procedural realist melodrama’, a film about adoption presented in CinemaScope with a trio of top French actors who manage to act as if they are the subject of a documentary.
The film is set in Finistère département in Brittany. We are introduced (separately) to two of the central characters, Jean (Gilles Lellouche) and Alice (Élodie Bouchez) to establish them as an experienced foster-father and a woman who wishes to adopt. Later we will meet the agent (the social welfare worker) who will bring them together. This is Karine (Sandrine Kilberlain). First, however, we are introduced to the young woman, a 21 year-old student who appears in Brest unannounced at the hospital and proceeds to give birth to a boy who she doesn’t want to keep. This in turn will bring a specially-trained social worker, Mathilde (Clothilde Mollet) to the hospital to take the young woman through the adoption process. After this the baby (named Théo) will be handed over to Jean until by due process the Adoption Agency of the local authority can make a decision about who would be a suitable candidate to adopt. These candidates express their wish to adopt and may be interviewed over several years before they are finally accepted as candidates. The social workers meet as a group to discuss possible candidates as parents. Olivia Côte plays the social worker with clear ideas about who should be considered. The candidates are discussed in terms of age, where they live (they need to be in the part of the region furthest from Brest in the case of Théo) and their psychological profile. At this point, the French authorities have decided that single parents can adopt – but is the team ready for this? Writer-director Jeanne Herry says in the Press Notes that she hadn’t realised that rather than finding a suitable baby for a couple, the procedure was to find suitable parents for the baby. The film’s French title, ‘Pupille’ refers to the baby who becomes a ‘ward of the state’ when the mother gives him up.
What follows is not a simple linear narrative and the narrative includes flashbacks to see how Alice goes through a complex set of interviews over a long period to assess whether she might be a suitable parent. I don’t want to spoil the narrative because as well as all the procedures, the film does present a form of family melodrama as well. I’ve always thought that social workers of all kinds get a rough deal in most films but here they become players in the drama. They don’t always get on with each other or with their clients and they are also human and in danger of making emotional rather than rational decisions – just like would-be adopters and foster parents. Jean is in some ways a vulnerable character as a ‘home husband’ whose frequent contact is Karine, a woman fulfilled by her job but not by her marriage.
The film was introduced by a festival programmer who suggested that we would need our hankies ready for the emotional scenes. I usually cry when watching a good melo but in this case I didn’t. I don’t think that is because the melodrama doesn’t work but because I became so fascinated in the procedures and in the way the professionals attempted to cope with emotional crises. I did, however, cover my eyes when Alice seemed about to have a disaster: I was so concerned that she might lose her chance to become a mother. It’s difficult to explain the way in which this film works. Documentaries aren’t usually shot in ‘Scope with such precision and the cinematographer here is Sofian El Fani responsible, among other films, for the stunning look of Timbuktu (Mauritania-France 2014). This isn’t a documentary but it sometimes feels like one, despite the major stars.
Casting Gilles Lellouche as Jean is a brave move that works very well. He’s known for action roles and seeing this big man cradling a tiny new-born babe in his huge arms with delicacy and confidence is an arresting sight. I suppose that some audiences might think it is too obvious a statement to work, but I think Herry and Lellouche pull it off. It’s not quite the same problem for Sandrine Kilberlain so she gets an addiction to Haribo sweets as a prop. Meanwhile Élodie Bouchez has the task of ageing over a period of 15 years or so which I think she does successfully. All the playing is very good throughout and I must pick out Miou-Miou as Irène, the head of the Adoption Agency panel (a difficult job). I later discovered that the director is actually Miou-Miou’s daughter. Miou-Miou was a great star and she still is a fine actor.
Ms Herry’s previous film, Elle l’adore (2014) was also shown at Glasgow and then made it into UK distribution, though I don’t remember it. In Safe Hands is a Studio Canal film and that company, with a significant UK operation, sometimes puts its French films straight to DVD with only a restricted cinema release. I hope they give this one a bigger push because it’s definitely a film to look out for. The lead actors interviewed in the Press Notes all express theirinterest in the procedures and Gilles Lellouche says the whole experience made him happy about how his taxes were being spent. Hearing this in austerity Britain is sobering as our welfare services are cut and cut.