This film has been around on MUBI for a while. I watched the first ten minutes or so and thought: “This isn’t for me”. I stopped watching and moved on to something else. I’d made the mistake of just reading the first line of the blurb late one night, assuming that it was a comedy drama about flight attendants and how they managed to let off steam during stopovers. I returned to it when it won the Grand Prix awarded  at My French Film Festival 2023 online last week. I tried again and this time stuck with it. I was wrong to dismiss it because it’s certainly worth watching. Co-written and co-directed by Julie Lecoustre and Emmanuel Marre, it’s a feature that mixes documentary style and an arthouse sensibility. The fictional element is headed by Adèle Exarchopoulos as Cassandre, working as a flight attendant for a European budget airline known as ‘Wing’. Outside France, Exarchopoulos is probably best known for Blue is the Warmest Colour (France 2013). Here she has the difficult task of carrying the film as the lead and playing against mainly non-professional actors (but professional flight personnel). She is clearly a good team player and she is able to carry off her role with aplomb.

Cassandre in robotic mode for the safety drill . . .

Wing is fictional and modelled on Ryanair but I don’t think the directors will be getting freebies from the company. I don’t think I’ve flown with Ryanair and I have no desire to do so. I have had to use other budget airlines at various times and I’m familiar with the games they play to keep fares unfeasibly low while finding other ways to screw money out of passengers. These are much the same across the industry. Wing seemingly flies across Europe and North Africa and is based in Lanzarote. As the title suggests, Cassandre has no real career plan and spends her downtime in clubs or on Tinder dates. Some of the other young women (and the occasional young man) are hopeful of gaining experience and then applying for jobs with recognised top airlines such as Emirates. After little more than a couple of years of this, Cassandre, who is clearly competent and reliable, finds herself coming to the end of her contract. The company doesn’t want to keep her on unless she is prepared to become a chief steward in charge of the team – assuming she passes the training programme. This is a rather soulless personnel policy. I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot but the company’s policies eventually trip up Cassandre and she heads home for Belgium. Once re-united with her father and sister we realise what it was that pushed her into the airline job. It’s quite a long film (115 mins) and in one sense there is little plot development when she is in Belgium, except in terms of presenting her family story (which is moving in its ‘matter-of-factness’). Eventually she has another Zoom interview and we leave Cassandre about to move on, at least geographically, but this isn’t a conventional ‘closure’ or ‘resolution’.

. . . and at home in Belgium with her sister Mélissa (Mara Taquin)

This film offers a revealing political analysis of what for me is one of the worst developments of recent years. It’s not just the budget airlines (which have seduced so many people into ‘frequent flying’ and exacerbating the climate change crisis) but the whole culture of precarious employment, often non-unionised and with punishing work regimes. The filmmakers do seem to have it in for the UK (and they are probably justified). Cassandre hates flying into Liverpool and she meets at least one boorish middle-class Englishman who behaves like the worst kind of Tory MP. I wish she’d ‘accidentally’ tipped his drink all over him. Now that I think about it, the focus on alcohol is indicative of the approach. The attendants are pressurised into selling drinks and then exposed to the behaviour of drunken passengers.

Training to be a cabin crew leader

The central performance by Adèle Exarchopoulos is very good. She is definitely ‘de-glamourised’ and is able to convince as a harassed attendant succeeding in literally putting on a mask of calm and competency. She’s a beautiful young woman, more than capable of changing her appearance to suggest an exploited worker. I was also impressed by the cinematography of Olivier Boonjing which captures the often unreal contrasts between blue skies and fluffy clouds outside the aircraft and the soulless banality of airports, presented in 1.66:1. The documentary elements of the overall approach are almost ‘procedural’ in explaining the work processes. It must be hard work for the attendants. I’ve more or less given up flying these days and if I want to travel across Europe, it’s rail for me. Having said that, there are worse places for a base than Lanzarote in winter.

Taking an electric scooter ride in Lanzarote during down time

If you can read French, there is a Press Pack here. I used Google Translate to scan it. There is an extensive interview with the filmmakers and with Exarchopoulos. It was an unusual shoot in many ways with improvisation and sometimes impromptu recordings in situ. Reading reviews, I’m struck by the fact that many commentators pick out the same scene in which Cassandre, feeling quite low because of her contract problems, answers a call on her mobile from her service provider advising her to change her phone contract. She’s walking through what looks like a tourist district in Lanzarote and finds herself in a conversation which is in one sense useful but in another quite distressing for reasons connected to her family. It’s a conversation about ‘roaming’ charges. The caller speaks to her in French, Cassandre’s first language. Cassandre is in Spain, walking past gift shops and bars all with signage in English. She speaks English sufficiently well to deal with passengers but she isn’t as fluent as she’d like. Attendants who get on can speak three or four languages fluently. There’s a lot to think about when a film like this can immerse you in the world that faces young people today. I read today that Germany is considering making English an official second language to help migrants deal more effectively with public services.

We’ve all experienced this scene – fancy doing it every day?

Zero Fucks Given is available on MUBI/Amazon to stream in the UK and on several VOD services to rent or buy (Apple looks the best deal). I recommend it.