'Almost Friends' ('On a failli etre amies'): Film Review

Carole Bethuel/Mars Films

French divas Emmanuelle Devos ("A Christmas Tale," "Violette") and Karin Viard ("Polisse," "My Piece of the Pie") duke it out in this drama from actress-turned-director Anne Le Ny.

PARIS -- Two Frenchwomen in early middle age are in need of a change that the other might be able to facilitate in Almost Friends (On a failli etre amies), the fourth and most accomplished comedy-drama to date from actress-turned-director Anne Le Ny, who here appears in a supporting role.

Local star actress Emmanuelle Devos (A Christmas Tale), who headlined Le Ny’s directorial debut, Those That Remain from 2007, and Karin Viard, who played the lead in Le Ny’s My Father’s Guests (2010) team up on-screen for the very first time and have terrific chemistry as two women who want more out of life in the workplace and the bedroom but are unsure how to obtain it and tentatively bond over their desire for change, though the husband of one of them is a complicating factor.

Though directed and assembled in a rather classical fashion, this is a well-observed and -written drama leavened with touching asides and comedic moments. It also offers something of a masterclass in French acting in the bargain, as the actresses have to constantly switch registers, sometimes within a single shot, such as in a scene involving a paper bag that manages to reveal a major, rather tragic plot point between two phrases that induce belly laughs. Francophone film showcases and distributors of classy French fare will want a piece of the pie. Almost Friends opens locally June 25.

Despite having both started their film careers in 1986, having both appeared in over 70 features since and having practically the same age, Devos and Viard have never appeared together onscreen until now. Indeed, one of the chief pleasures of the film is to simply watch these two professionals tear into well-written material with gusto as they breathe life into their complex, occasionally even contradictory but finally always comprehensible characters. 

Devos is Carole, who has started to feel overshadowed by her husband, the star restaurateur Sam (Roschdy Zem), to such an extent that one day she shows up at a center for professional re-education and re-insertion to explore other possible options for her future, though she never finished her studies and is unsure what she could do. Her case is handled by the busy-bee, extremely organized officer worker Marithe (Viard), though things almost immediately start off on the wrong foot because, on her first visit, Carole’s too scared to admit what she does for a living and the same evening, Marithe is taken out for dinner for her birthday to Sam’s restaurant, where Carole is the hostess.

The flustered Carole introduces Marithe to Sam as her “gym buddy,” and not much later, life starts imitating Carole’s lies, at least to the extent that the two women start seeing each other outside of Carole’s office appointments. Marithe also meets Sam again on several occasions and in a more conventional melodrama, this is where they would fall in love and Carole’s already miserable life would either be over or she would realize life in the shadow of a famous husband is really the perfect job for her.

But Le Ny has other plans, having burdened both her protagonists with problems that the other woman is better at identifying or helping to solve and thus creating a more complex inter-dependent dynamic for the protagonists. Things become morally problematic when the divorced, working-class Marithe finds herself practically forcing the clearly talented but unfocused Carole to assert her own independence, which would include not only a job for herself but also a divorce from the man Marithe is secretly attracted to.

Both women need each other to become better versions of themselves and have similar problems but refreshingly, Le Ny doesn’t suggest that this means they become fast friends. Instead, much of their interaction happens in a fascinating gray area where the women’s individual needs are probably the biggest influence on their behavior but neither is necessarily operating out of malice.

Sandwiched between the leading ladies and their beguiling and nuanced performances, Zem (Days of Glory) impressively holds his own, managing to suggest his character in a couple of very convincing brushstrokes, making it equally believable that someone would want to leave him and someone else could fall in love with him. Indeed, though Almost Friends is very much a female-centered drama, one of the nicest touches is the way it integrates the complex roles men can play in women’s lives, as is clear from Marithe’s very comfortable and warm relationship with her ex-husband (Philippe Rebbot, terrific) and his second wife (a somewhat thankless role played by Le Ny).

The film was shot in and around the provincial town of Orleans, on the Loire River, which offers pretty backdrops but more importantly suggests that this is a story that could take place anywhere and happen to anybody. Costume designer Isabelle Pannetier's work is the stand-out technical contribution, with what the women wear clear visual markers of who they are and what they are turning into. 

Production company: Move Movie

Cast: Karin Viard, Emmanuelle Devos, Roschdy Zem, Anne Le Ny, Philippe Rebbot, Annie Mercier, Marion Lecrivain, Yan Tassin, Marion Malenfant, Xavier de Guillebon

Writer-Director: Anne Le Ny

Producer: Bruno Levy

Director of photography: Jerome Almeras

Production designer: Yves Brover

Costume designer: Isabelle Pannetier

Editor: Guerric Catala

Composer: Eric Neveux

Sales: SND Groupe M6

No rating, 91 minutes.

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