Young Girls in Black -- Film Review

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CANNES -- Jean Paul Civeyrac researched double suicides for over a decade before making the over-indulgent "Young Girls in Black," which boils teenage torment down to existential ennui. Teenagers would approve of the "us vs. them" (adults) theme, but the long, silent scenes of characters staring sullenly off into space should prove too tedious for younger audiences. This is by-the-books art house cinema, in which the aesthetics of an idea, even one as complex as suicide, rule over the emotions behind it.

"Young Girls" is the anti-"LOL," the French boxoffice hit of 2008 about impossibly good-looking high school students and their text messages. Whereas even their angst was effervescent, the pretty young goth things of Civeyrac's film spend most of their time saying and texting how much they hate the world and love one another.

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When they're not speaking, Noemie (Elise Lhomeau) and Priscilla (Lea Tissier) glare at people or look wistfully and gloomily into one another's eyes like the doomed lovers Heinrich von Kleist and Henriette Vogel, whom they aspire to imitate. Only Vogel was dying of cancer when the renowned German writer shot her before killing himself. Civeyrac effectively shows how alienated the girls are from life around them but doesn't dig very deep to explain why.

A good student and accomplished flautist, 17-year-old Noemie lives with her mother, with whom she constantly fights. She attempted suicide before and has been unable to cry for years. Priscilla's troubles are more palpable: She is estranged from her parents, lives with her sister, is doing poorly in school and has been dumped by a boyfriend.

The grown-ups are enemies, superficial people living vapid lives -- what teenager doesn't think this? -- who "do not search for the absolute" in life, like von Kleist. The girls' death wish is the loss of all innocence, but portrayed in such an overly mannered way it comes across as petulance rather than depression. The sexual overtones of the co-dependent friendship lend the most psychological impetus. Teenage girls form powerful bonds, and in one so morose it is easy to see how they feed off of one another.

The "will they, won't they kill themselves" tension builds as Noemie and Priscilla search for sleeping pills to carry out their "gentle death." When Noemie's neighborhood pharmacist won't give them to her, for good reason given her history, she throws a tantrum in the drug store and steals them from her grandmother instead.

All narrative roads lead to tragedy, which comes halfway through. The rest of the film deals with survivor's guilt, through to the cathartic, predictable ending.

Lhomeau is unnerving as Noemie; her intentionally dispassionate performance borders on the psychotic, making her all the more enigmatic and all the less likable. Tissier shows more range as the weaker Priscilla, whose instability masks the greater resolve.

Venue: Festival de Cannes -- Directors' Fortnight
Sales: Les Films du Losange
Production company: Les Films Pelleas
Cast: Elise Lhomeau, Lea Tissier, Elise Caron, Isabelle Sadoyan, Roger Jendly, Thierry Paret, Aurore Soudieux, Youlia Zimina
Director/screenwriter: Jean Paul Civeyrac.
Producer: Philippe Martin
Director of photography: Hichame Alaouie
Production designer: Brigitte Brassart
Costume designer: Marie-Laure Pinsard
Editor: Louise Narboni
No rating, 87 minutes
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