‘My French Film Festival’ is now running online until February 15. There are several features films that stand out plus a selection of short films. I picked out Working Girls for two reasons. It’s a Belgian film featuring three women living in France, in Roubaix, who work in a brothel in Belgium to make ends meet. I also recognised three of the leads in the film and especially Sara Forestier who impressed me greatly in Suzanne (France 2013), a film by Katell Quillévéré. I was also surprised to learn that the film had been selected as the Belgian entry for the 2020 ‘Best International Feature’ Oscar awards. It didn’t sound like the kind of film the Academy voters were likely to go for.
I’m interested in Roubaix as a location because it’s twinned with Bradford in the UK, sharing the traditional importance of the woollen industry and the more recent development of a significant Muslim population. Roubaix has been used as a location in several French films, most notably in the films of Arnaud Desplechin. Unfortunately, in this film, all we see of the town is a block of high-rise flats and suburban streets (which may well have been shot in a different location). The three women of the title meet in a housing estate car park and drive into Belgium to work. The only significant image of their journey is the road sign (with the EU flag) announcing they are entering Belgium. It is a poignant moment for a viewer in ‘beleaguered Brexit Britain’. I’m wondering what will happen on Eurostar trains heading for Brussels when we can travel again after the pandemic?
I’ve read several reviews and comments about the film, many of which stress that this is “not a film about prostitution”. That’s an odd statement I think. I think the source of this is the director’s statement that the film doesn’t cover some of the conventional themes associated with brothels in films.The film represents what goes on in a brothel, it deals to some extent with the procedures of the brothel and it focuses on the lives of these three ‘ordinary’ women whose circumstances have pushed them into this kind of work. In one sense the film is unusual in that the three women are French rather than migrants from Eastern Europe or further afield. (Wikipedia suggests that many prostitutes in Belgium are Bulgarian.) The last similar film I can remember is The Receptionist (Taiwan-UK 2016) in which the ‘girls’ are from China or Taiwan. The women in Roubaix don’t have to worry about immigration authorities but they do have lives not connected to sex work (they work under pseudonyms to protect their identities) and these can also be problematic. Axelle (Sara Forestier) is a mother of three small children who are looked after by their grandmother. The man she claims is not her husband is Yann (Nicolas Cazalé) who is around and seems to think he has rights re the children. Dominque or ‘Do’ is played by Noémie Lvovsky who was so good as the mother in Catherine Corsini’s Summertime (France 2015). ‘Do’ works as a nurse on the night shift. She has a husband and two teenage children to support. The third woman is Conso (Annabelle Lengronne) who is the youngest of the three, living on her own. In some ways she is the most vulnerable of the three. The three are aggressive towards each other but also supportive, realising that they must protect each other.
The film opens with the three seemingly burying a body in the rain and mud. The rest of the narrative is therefore a long flashback, at the end of which we will discover the identity of the body. There is also a three-part structure to the flashback so we focus on each of the three women in turn. It’s significant that the writer on the film is Anne Paulicevich who spent a long time researching the background to her story which was inspired by a newspaper article. She visited a brothel regularly for several months talking informally to the ‘working girls’. The Internet Movie Database credits her as co-director of the film with Frédéric Fonteyne. Cineuropa and the film’s Press Pack list her as ‘artistic director’. I’m not quite sure what that means but I suspect that she worked closely with the three female leads and with the cinematographer Juliette Van Dormael. The brothel is, in this film, a female space, at least in the back room where the women chat. I don’t see a Hollywood remake in the current climate, even with the relatively small amount of nudity. The actual sexual encounters are brief and never really gratuitous, but there is also violence. The violence comes from men both as clients and outside the brothel, but we learn little about them.
I’m not sure what to make of the film. This kind of subject matter is always difficult to handle and to pitch to distributors and audiences. Paulicevich says in the Press Pack that she sees the women as ‘heroes’ and indeed the most successful aspect of the film is the interaction between the women and how they overcome problems. Paulicevich herself wrote the film because she had only just become a mother with a baby daughter and had left an abusive relationship. Frédéric Fonteyne reveals that the film had a working title of La frontière, suggesting both the border between the two EU countries, the border between genres, social norms, emotions etc. I think that might have been a better title but he said that he realised it would be misleading for audiences if they thought it implied trafficking. Fonteyne suggests it is a ‘political film’ in its treatment of violence towards women and female solidarity. I’m not sure about that and I’d like to see some reviews by women. I understand that prostitution is not ‘standardised’ across the EU. Belgian policy is to regulate an industry that is not illegal but in France brothels are illegal so that presumably explains the original newspaper story.
The film was low budget and shot in just 30 days partly in the brothel used for the research. It is clearly an achievement to produce such a film and the performances from the three leads are outstanding. I’m not sure if in the end Paulicevich Fonteyne have achieved their aims but I found the film engaging and worthwhile, mainly for the melodrama of the three women’s interactions, and I think it is definitely worth watching.