It's entirely unfair to tag French actress Brigitte Sy's second feature as either a Philippe Garrel knock-off or as another tasteful throwback to the golden years of existentialist, post-WWII French cinema. However, it's as unfair as it is unavoidable, since Ms. Sy did not make it easy on herself. She shoots her adaptation of Albertine Sarrazin's 1965 autobiographical novel as a story of urgent, romantic push-and-pull in a silky, beautiful widescreen black and white (courtesy of DP Frédéric Serve) that reminds heavily of Mr. Garrel's own work. And it's an adaptation of a classic text of French post-war literature - the autobiography of an Algerian orphan adopted by a French couple, whose distrust for authority despite her obvious intelligence and literacy eventually leads her to prison after being accomplice to a botched robbery that leaves a woman injured.
All of this backstory, set in mid-1950s France, is beautifully elided and made clear in L'Astragale's very impressive nocturnal opening. What follows is less impressive, as it conforms a little bit more to the "star-crossed lovers" and "romance of the criminal class" formulas than this promising start suggests, despite the clear intelligence with which Ms. Sy directs it. The grittiness of the background and her refusal to sugarcoat things also set the film apart from any undue comparisons with Mr. Garrel. During an escape that leaves her with a broken ankle, Albertine (Leïla Bekhti) is saved by the glamorous thief Julien (Reda Kateb), and it's almost love at first sight. Stumbling into prostitution of her own accord to pay the bills, she starts writing up her emotions and experiences in a journal brimming with the passion she must withhold from her day job and devotes only to Julien, despite the return of her former partner in crime and devoted lover Marie (Esther Garrel).
Ms. Sarrazin's book was acclaimed at the time of its publication for its no-holds-barred portrayal of an unapologetic, free-spirited woman who spoke freely of her past and experiences; Ms. Sy's film adaptation (the second after an unremembered late-sixties version) is equally non-judgmental and singularly attuned to the female side of living and loving on the wrong side of the law. As an actress herself, Ms. Sy allows her actors as much time and space to create their characters as needed, and is properly rewarded, especially by her leads, who embody the couple as people in love with life making the most out of the bad cards they have been dealt, and finding refuge in each other's love.
Yet, for all her sympathy and ability to give L'Astragale a life and a heart, there's still something missing from the film to make it go the extra mile. A little less wisdom? A little more madness? A little more personality? Whatever it is, and I'm not sure I can pinpoint it, it's a shame; it keeps the film within that wide mid-range of modest, smart little movies that could but, for some reason, don't, despite having so much going for it.
Cast Leïla Bekhti, Reda Kateb, Esther Garrel, Jocelyn Desverchère, India Hair, Jean-Charles Dumay
Director Brigitte Sy; screenwriters Ms. Sy and Serge le Péron; based on the novel by Albertine Sarrazin, Astragal; cinematographer Frédéric Serve (b&w, widescreen); composer Béatrice Thiriet; production and costume designer Françoise Arnaud; editor Julie Dupré; producer Paulo Branco; production companies Alfama Films Production and France 3 Cinéma
screened June 24th 2015, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon (distributor press screening)