(This review contains spoilers.)
The films of French director Arnaud des Pallieres, whose 2013 title Michael Kohlhaas was part of the Cannes competition, are ambitious and uncompromising. This is also true for his latest effort, Orphan (Orpheline), inspired by the life of co-screenwriter Christelle Berthevas (who also co-authored Kohlhaas). Instead of making a straightforward narrative biopic, he’s made a film that cuts between the stories of four women at different ages and with different names who all represent different aspects of the woman at its center. But des Pallieres’ compartmentalized approach to character has a distinct drawback: it takes too long to see how all the protagonists are really one person, so for much of the film’s running time it feels like four decent to very good short films have been cut together for no reason other than that they are all about women (rather than one woman).
After its Toronto bow, this should land at festivals and VOD-specialists looking for highbrow French fare, though theatrical exposure beyond French-speaking territories will be limited.
The film opens with leggy tough girl Tara (Bond girl Gemma Arterton, speaking passable French) being released from prison. The first thing the ex-con does is go to the school run by Renee (Adele Haenel, from the Dardenne brothers’ The Unknown Girl), a kind and attentive woman in her early thirties, so she can demand her part of a sum they stole together seven years earlier. Not much later, and in front of her partner (Jalil Lespert) with whom she’s been trying to conceive, Renee’s dragged away by the police who claim she’s someone called Karine.
Elsewhere, Sandra (Adele Exarchopoulos, from Blue Is the Warmest Color), in her twenties, is a flirty young woman who sits down in a café to meet an older, somewhat lecherous man who, besides younger women, is into betting on horse races. At the racetrack, Sandra becomes a cashier and meets Tara, whose plan to rig the system and make a lot of money. To convince Sandra, she tries to seduce her. (Unlike most of the film, that scene plays mainly like a male fantasy and also casts Exarchopoulos as another potentially sex-crazed lesbian after her Blue breakout, which is not exactly imaginative casting, though she’s very convincing).
After visiting Renee in prison, the film introduces the precocious 13-year-old Karine (Solene Rigot), who tells everyone she’s 18 or, if they don’t believe her, 16. At a club, she picks up the owner of a construction company and seems in control. When she finally returns home, however, her father is furious and it becomes clear that her behavior is typical psychology 101: she craves attention because she’s not getting any at home.
The fourth protagonist is 6-year-old Kiki (Vega Cuzytek), who loves to play outside until things go awry in a foreboding junkyard.
It takes Orphan over an hour to introduce and set up the stories of the four protagonists, with the crosscutting between the stories fairly minimal. Though there are some connections — Renee might be someone called Karine; Sandra and Karine are both flirts (though Renee’s the opposite of one); Tara appears in the first two stories… — the different narratives seem to develop independently from one another for most of the running time. The closing segment, which of course has to circle back to the oldest of the women, Renee/Karine, is set partially in a Romanian hospital, of all places, though it does bring several things full circle.
With three credited editors, including the director, it looks like even the filmmakers might have been rummaging around in the heap of material they had after shooting for quite some time to try and come up with the best possible way to interconnect these four stories so they could become one. There are traces of some subplots that feel like they’ve been perhaps partially left on the cutting room floor, such as the one involving a sugar daddy played by Sergi Lopez. Though the overall final result makes sense in hindsight, the lack of more overt and more frequent parallels between the various storylines means that audiences will likely consider each protagonist separately until quite late — possibly, too late — into the film (unless they’ve read this review first and in that case, you’re welcome!).
The four actresses are all good though none of them have big story arcs, firstly because they are each in only roughly a quarter of a movie but also because des Pallieres often seems more interested in depicting age rather than personal growth (the latter can be gleaned more from the differences between the stories thanfrom what actually transpires onscreen in any single one of them). There is also no concerted effort to have the women act in a similar way or make them look alike, which might help suggest different facets and ages of the protagonist but which can also be a hindrance for audiences trying to connect all the different stories early on.
In the end, Orphan offers four stories of women for the price of one. That’s nothing to scoff at, though by insisting more on how they are different, the film missing out on the biggest prize of all: a larger and coherent portrait of a single, complex individual.
Production companies: Les Films Hatari, Les Films d’Ici
Cast: Adele Haenel, Adele Exarchopoulos, Solene Rigot, Vega Cuzytek, Gemma Arterton, Jalil Lespert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Sergi Lopez, Karim Lelkou
Director: Arnaud des Pallieres
Screenplay: Arnaud des Pallieres, Christelle Berthevas
Producers: Michel Klein, Serge Lalou
Director of photography: Yves Cape
Production designer: Guillaume Deviercy
Editors: Arnaud des Pallieres, Guillaume Lauras, Emilie Orsini
Casting: Leila Fournier, Sarah Teper
Sales: Le Pacte
No rating, 110 minutes