The fortyish director of an all-female prison falls hard for one of his youngest inmates in the painful French penal drama Down By Love (Eperdument), from writer-director Pierre Godeau. Based on a true story that occurred in a detention center in Versailles in 2011, this feature uses a book penned by the real-life inspiration for the male lead, Florent Goncalves, as the basis for its screenplay. But despite having written a film that’s almost two hours long, Godeau doesn’t seem all that bothered with character motivations and backstories.
This supposedly all-consuming love story needs a strong pair of actors to sell the couple’s almost animalistic chemistry — they don’t seem to have all that much in common, otherwise — but Godeau has somewhat oddly opted for actors who are most famous for their queer roles: Guillaume Gallienne, who played Pierre Berger in Yves Saint Laurent and a fey momma’s boy in his semi-autobiographical Me, Myself and Mum, is the married detention center head while Adele Exarchopoulos, the explosive breakout lead from lesbian romance Blue is the Warmest Color, is the youngster who catches his eye because, well, perhaps he’s in an early midlife crisis? Beyond France, where this story with these stars may put some curious bums in seats, this will mostly be relegated to French-cinema showcases and small screens.
Jean (Gallienne), with a somewhat scruffy beard that can’t hide his delicately drawn lips or mellifluous voice, runs his female penitentiary with a combination of ambition, discipline and psychological insight. Or so he thinks; only in a French film would someone who runs a jail refer to himself as “an artist”. The arrival of Anna (Exarchopoulos) from another prison is, at first, a routine matter. She’s been in the slammer for four years already and has another four to five to go, though she can’t be more than twentyish. What heinous act she committed exactly to have merited being locked away when she was still a minor is never explicitly stated (the inspiration for Anna was used as bait by a gang to kill a Jewish man).
Though the film privileges a male point-of-view and more specifically a point-of-view close to Jean, it’s hard to understand why he falls so hard for Anna, whose prison nickname, given her go-to facial expression, should have been Snout McPouty. It is clear Godeau isn’t interested in playing a very black-and-white blame game in which either Jean abuses his power to have sex with an inmate half his age, or Anna uses her body to get special favors from him.
But the choice to forego a clear (and perhaps clichéd) power dynamic doesn’t excuse the filmmaker from dispensing any kind of psychological insight. But unfortunately, there’s absolutely no sense at all why Jean would so boldly act on his sexual impulses — there’s no suggestion he’s the French equivalent of Michael Fassbender in Shame — and put at risk his hard-earned position and career as well as an ordinary but far from repulsive domestic life with his wife (Stephanie Cleau, Mathieu Almaric’s other half) and young daughter, sketched in just a few scenes. Nor is it clear why Anna acts the way she does; the fact she grew up without a father seems so reductive a point that it can hardly be the only thing that’s going on?
Making the goings-on even more incomprehensible is the fact that Anna, in a French class in prison, is studying Jean Racine’s Phedre, about how Phaedra fell in love with the son of her husband. Of course it’s a meditation on “wrong love,” but it also starts to make literate audiences wonder whether there’ll be more overt parallels to the text, which never materialize.
As in Blue, Exarchopoulos’s intense, broad-brushstroke acting is most impressive in scenes that feature big emotions, whether she’s fighting with her mother or her cell-mates (some of which are played by actual inmates) or making brutal love to Jean. But her natural presence and verve can only take her that far; without a narrative construction or anything else that might help suggest what she’s feeling or why she does what she does, Anna ends up being a rather impenetrable character with an incongruous interest in 17th-century plays. The precise acting style of Gallienne, one of the country’s top thespians who is part of the prestigious Comedie-Francaise, is radically different but this contrast doesn’t help suggest much about their differences other than that they’re simply different. The duo’s chemistry, meanwhile, is more often of the polite than the passionate persuasion. Jean’s incongruous interest, since it’s the kind of movie in which each characters has a quirk rather than a personality, is that he zones out at home in front of Secret Story, France’s version of Big Brother.
Technically, the film is relatively polished if largely predictable, with cinematographer Muriel Cravatte agitating the camera more in more agitated scenes and the score, by mono-monikered artist Rob, occasionally featuring that most beloved of Muzak instruments, the flute.
Production companies: Pan-Europeenne, LGM Cinema, Don’t Be Shy Productions, Versus Production, Appaloosa Distribution, Studiocanal
Cast: Guillaume Gallienne, Adele Exarchopoulos, Stephanie Cleau, Alienor Poisson, Cyrielle Martinez, Selma Mansouri, Sabila Moussadek, Marie Riviere, Julie Moulier, Marilyne Even
Director: Pierre Godeau
Screenplay: Pierre Godeau, based on the novel by Florent Goncalves and Catherine Sugeret
Producers: Philippe Godeau, Nathalie Gastaldo Godeau, Cyril Colbeau-Justin, Jean-Baptiste Dupont
Executive producers: Jacques-Henri Bronckart, Olivier Bronckart
Director of photography: Muriel Cravatte
Production designer: Stephane Taillason
Costume designer: Judith de Luze
Editor: Herve de Luze
Casting: Constance Demontoy
No rating, 110 minutes