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In Tonie Marshall’s corporate drama Number One (Numero Une), a business exec tries to crash through the glass ceiling and become the first woman to lead a major French company, doing damage to herself and others along the way. It’s an intriguing premise that, despite a sharp turn from the always-watchable Emmanuelle Devos (Read My Lips), gets muddled in too many characters, plot points and a feminist message that can seem both confused and slightly archaic. Still, this is a solid, topical enough outing to merit international pickups after world premiering at the Toronto Film Festival.
Devos plays Emmanuelle, a 40-something senior manager working in the renewable energy sector. She’s an ambitious team leader, quick on her feet and unafraid to make tough decisions. The fact that she also speaks fluent Mandarin makes her a key player in her firm’s move to court Chinese investors interested in their offshore wind turbines, which we see in action during a visit they make to an impressive site in the middle of the sea.
Emmanuelle’s qualities also make her a leading candidate to replace the ailing CEO of an influential power company listed in the CAC 40, — the Gallic equivalent of the Dow Jones — which would be the first time a woman held such a position in French history. She’s handpicked for the gig by a group of female lobbyists headed up by the charismatic Adrienne (veteran Francine Berge, Judex), and, despite a few early reservations, decides to go for the job.
This is when things get complicated, both in terms of the story and Marshall’s ability to succinctly channel her heroine’s plight. Tossing in tons of characters, intrigues, subplots and red herrings, the director (working with co-writers Marion Doussot and Raphaelle Bacque) reveals how tough it is for Emmanuelle to succeed in the face of numerous competing factors and factions — most notably an evil corporate puppetmaster, Beaumel (Richard Berry), and his suave henchman, Marc (Benjamin Biolay).
At the same time, Emmanuelle’s milquetoast British husband (John Lynch) doesn’t stop whining about his wife’s job prospects, while the deal with the Chinese suddenly flies off the rails. And then her dad (the great Sami Frey) suffers a stroke and is hospitalized, her right-hand man is laid off and attempts suicide, and Adrienne the lobbyist dies, leaving a successor (Xavier Dolan regular Suzanne Clement) who tries to pick up the torch but is compromised by her own drug-addicted teenage daughter.
Cramming in enough elements for a full season of television, Number One loses focus after the first act and never really gets it back. Instead of concentrating on the lead — even if passing reference is made to Emmanuelle’s psychiatric issues, as well as to the death of her mother when she was a child — the backdoor machinations of Beaumel ultimately take center stage. As it turns out, he’s not trying to hold Emmanuelle back because she’s a woman, but rather because she’s slated to take over a firm that, when Beaumel was at the head, engaged in Enron-style bookkeeping he’d like to keep buried.
Marshall is perhaps trying to make a broad statement about the place of women in Gallic industry, but it winds up getting undermined by her inability to tell a straightforward story. Other films in the genre, such as the recent Corporate and 150 Milligrams, or Claude Chabrol’s terrific Comedy of Power from 2006, have done a better job a conveying how difficult it is for someone like Emmanuelle to play in the company of men, taking on an old and misogynistic boy’s club that’s probably been around since the monarchy was still in place. (At the same time, France seems to be ahead of the curve compared to some other Western powers: witness, for instance, the number of influential female film directors working there — including, in fact, Marshall herself.)
If Number One doesn’t always convince on a thematic or dramatic level, it’s propped up by an excellent cast — beginning with Devos, who manages to appear both poised and completely flustered in the same shot, channeling Emmanuelle’s roller coaster ride to the top. Her performance has an edge to it that gets a bit softened by the overabundance of plot and side characters, although some of the supporting roles are also memorable: especially Berry as a ruthless executive a-hole and Frey as a father who’s wise enough to both admire his daughter and pinpoint some of her major flaws.
Photography by Julien Roux aptly captures the corporate monstrosities of Paris’ La Defense business district, framing Emmanuelle against a menacing backdrop of glass and steel.
Production companies: Tabo Tabo Films, Versus Production
Cast: Emmanuelle Devos, Suzanne Clement, Richard Berry, Benjamin Biolay
Director: Tonie Marshall
Screenwriters: Tonie Marshall, Marion Doussot, Raphaelle Bacque
Producers: Veronique Zerdoun, Tonie Marshall
Director of photography: Julien Roux
Production designer: Anne Falgueres
Costume designers: Anne Autran, Elisabeth Tavernier
Editor: Marie-Pierre Frappier
Composers: Mike Kourtzer, Fabien Kourtzer
Casting directors: Brigitte Moidon, Valerie Trajanovski
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Sales: Pyramide International
In French, English
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