'My Friend Victoria' ('Mon Amie Victoria'): Film Review

Courtesy of Claire Nicol
A tender if somewhat underwhelming tale of race and family in contemporary France

A short story by the late Doris Lessing is adapted by French auteur Jean-Paul Civeyrac

Transposing a story by Doris Lessing to modern-day Paris, writer-director Jean-Paul Civeyrac (Young Girls in Black) offers up a touching if not quite gripping portrait of race and family in the indie drama My Friend Victoria (Mon amie Victoria). Starring newcomer Guslagie Malanda as the titular heroine who watches life pass her by while longing for something better, this well-acted and intimate affair lacks the narrative drive to push it far beyond French borders, but it's worth a look.

The late Nobel Prize laureate published her story "Victoria and the Staveneys" in the 2003 collection The Grandmothers (whose eponymous novella was adapted by Anne Fontaine into the 2013 Naomi Watts-Robin Wright starrer, Adore). Lessing's original tale was set in London and featured a young black girl infatuated with a wealthy white family in her neighborhood. In Civeyrac's version, the plot mostly remains the same, but the action is moved to Paris, where we watch the orphan Victoria (Keylia Achie Beguie) experience a sort of epiphany when she's welcomed one evening into the alluring Haussmannian home of an artsy couple living close by.

Although she only spends a night there, Victoria, who is raised by a family friend, Diouma (Elise Akaba) alongside her own young daughter, Fanny (Keemyah Omolongo), never stops dreaming about the life she may never have: one of bourgeois comforts and, as the film later alludes to, a certain kind of white privilege. (Lessing's story was more blunt about the racial divide. Here it's less in the forefront, although one scene, where a character compares France's lingering national identity issues to the rise of Barack Obama in the U.S., is quite pronounced in its critique of local politics.)

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Now grown up into a beautiful young woman, Victoria (Malanda) doesn't have much of a direction, drifting from one odd job to another, including an extended stint at a record store specializing in jazz, soul and hip-hop. There she meets Thomas (Pierre Andrau), the son of the venerated family that took her in that night many years ago. They quickly fall in love and then separate, but Victoria is already pregnant. She decides to have the baby without telling Thomas, trying to scrape by on her own.

Narrated by Fanny (Nadia Moussa), who has since matured into an aspiring writer, Victoria's story doesn't have a veritable arc to it, although there are a few dramatic turns that are only partially exploited by Civeyrac's scaled-down direction. Described at one point as "a puppet sliding on the surface of the world," Victoria is definitely what you would call a passive protagonist, and although the film subtly explores questions of ethnic identity, it doesn't necessarily keep one engaged until the end.

Things heat up some in the last act when Victoria reconnects with Thomas, allowing their daughter, Marie (Maylina Diagne), to benefit from the riches of Thomas' actor parents (Catherine Mouchet, Pascal Greggory), who claim they "always wanted a little black girl." Lessing was much more critical of these champagne socialists, who are exploited for laughs here but shown to be good people. It's a generous approach on Civeyrac's part, yet one that deemphasizes Victoria's plight as Marie starts slipping out of her hands towards something better — towards the life Victoria had dreamed of herself.

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Working with mostly unknowns, the filmmaker gets good performances out of his amateur cast, with Malanda offering up a touching portrayal of a girl who seems to view her own evolution from the sidelines, and not without a certain resentment. And while it's encouraging to see a story of African-born Frenchies that's not filled with the usual drugs, rap and violence, My Friend Victoria could have used a few doses of adrenaline, or else the stylistic prowess that highlighted Claire Denis' 35 Shots of Rum, which also tackled issues race and class in (or just outside of) Paris.

Tech credits are highlighted by David Chambille's warm-hued cinematography, while musical choices include rather serene works by Stan Getz and Aaron Copland.

Production companies: Les Films Pelleas, Versus Production
Cast: Guslagie Malanda, Nadia Moussa, Catherine Mouchet, Pascal Greggory, Alexis Loret, Pierre Andrau
Director, screenwriter: Jean-Paul Civeyrac, based on the short story "Victoria and the Staveneys" by Doris Lessing
Producer: Philippe Martin
Director of photography: David Chambille
Production designer: Brigitte Brassart
Costume designer: Claire Dubien
Editor: Louise Narboni
Casting directors: Sarah Teper, Leila Fournier, Aurore Broutin, Ophelie Gelber

Sales: Les Films du Losange

No rating, 95 minutes

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