These are rather dark times in France, so it’s perhaps no surprise that a feel-good comedy like Invisibles (Les Invisibles) has turned into a sizeable sleeper hit, raking in close to 1 million admissions since its release in early January. But what’s even more surprising is how a movie about a bunch of social workers and homeless women occupying an illegal shelter — and one featuring a cast that includes several actual homeless women playing themselves — could score so big at the local box office.
Much of Invisibles’ success is due to writer-director Louis-Julien Petit’s light but perceptive touch, mixing comedy with an observant, near-documentary chronicle of down-and-out ladies struggling to make it to the next day under extremely tough conditions. Sometimes Petit pushes the buttons a little too hard, especially during the film’s upbeat denouement, while his script (adapted with Marion Doussot and Claire Lajeunie from a book by the latter) meanders at times and doesn’t exactly keep you hooked. But as a warm character study in a very cold place, Invisibles works on its own terms, offering up genuine glimpses of hope in the mere fact that it exists at all.
Like the director’s promising feature debut, Discount, the pic is set in a grim, forever gray northern city that’s a far cry from the idyllic images of France found in tourist guidebooks and Dior ads. There, a coterie of women — the persistent if somewhat naïve Audrey (Audrey Lamy), the no-nonsense Manu (Corinne Masiero), the sweet and soon-to-be single Helene (Noemie Lvovsky) and the trash-talking Angelique (Deborah Lukumuena) — run a day shelter for homeless females, offering them a warm shower, a hot meal, a little camaraderie and some necessary career guidance.
But when municipal officials decide that the shelter — which is named “L’Envol,” or “The Takeoff” — isn’t helping enough people get off the streets and back to work, they shut it down, leaving Audrey and Manu to deal with the consequences. The two soon decide to keep it open clandestinely, allowing their girls to stay there overnight while training them in the day to become confident and functioning members of society.
If the social workers (all played by professional actresses) are mostly running the show in Invisibles, the various real-life homeless women are the ones who steal it. Far from providing gloomy depictions of the French female underclass, they have a riotous sense of humor and sangfroid that makes you forget their predicaments, cracking lots of jokes though never shying away from the reality of their situations.
By far the star of this group is Chantal, an elderly ex-con who was imprisoned for murdering an abusive husband and is incapable of talking about much else — especially when she’s sitting down politely for a job interview. Petit gets much mileage out of Chantal’s and the other ladies’ bawdy attitudes and disarming honesty, and much of Invisibles functions as a group portrait of real people facing real problems. It’s when the movie tries to add fiction to the action, including subplots involving the social workers’ private lives, that it feels a bit telegraphed and generic.
Bathing the cast in soft light and turning the shelter into a friendly if transient setting, Petit avoids some of the pitfalls of dour social realism and comes closer here to the genial social comedies of Ken Loach, many of which have been hits in France. Indeed, with Discount and now Invisibles, the director seems to be following in the British auteur’s footsteps, working with non-professional actors to depict the darker sides of a country plighted by unemployment and inequality, but doing so with a smile.
Production company: Elemiah
Cast: Audrey Lamy, Corinne Masiero, Noemie Lvovsky, Deborah Lukumuena, Sarah Suco
Director: Louis-Julien Petit
Screenwriters: Louis-Julien Petit, Marion Doussot, Claire Lajeunie, based on the book Sur la route des invisibles – femmes dans la rue by Claire Lajeunie
Producers: Liza Benguigui, Philippe Dupuis-Mendel
Director of photography: David Chambille
Production designer: Arnaud Bouniort
Editors: Antoine Vareille, Nathan Delannoy
Composer: Laurent Perez del Mar
Casting directors: David Bertrand, Clement Morelle