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A portrait of a female bodybuilder whose past catches up with her during a high-stakes competition, Swiss-French co-prod Pearl offers an intensely tactile look into a little-known world, one filled with sequins, steroids and single-minded commitment from participants to pushing their anatomies to the limit. A feature debut for Swiss writer-director Elsa Amiel, previously an assistant director for Francophone auteurs like Bertrand Bonello, Noemie Lvovsky and Mathieu Amalric, this visually striking if predictable work features empathic performances from lead Julia Fory (a real-life bodybuilder) and Peter Mullan as her coach. Although the heroine is a cis heterosexual woman, the story’s implicit challenge to gender norms could help the film find an audience among queer-friendly viewers on the festival and art house circuit after its debut in the Venice Days strand on the Lido.
To paraphrase a striking line of dialogue here, professional bodybuilder Lea Pearl (Fory) has become a prisoner of the body she has built herself. In training for the international Heaven competition that is being held in an anonymous hotel staffed by French speakers, she spends hours every day lifting weights and working out in her hotel room or the downstairs gym, barely speaking to anyone other than her trainer Al (Mullan, speaking with his native Glaswegian accent and doing that menacing, angry-guy shtick he does so well).
There’s a suggestion that the two of them have a sexual thing going, but what might be a sex scene early on is filmed in close-ups so tight you can count Fory’s pores, so it’s hard to be sure. Indeed, Al and Lea might just as well be doing some kind of exercise together designed to get her weight down and tighten some obscure set of muscles, given how emotionally detached they seem from one another. A former competitor himself whose limp and use of a cane suggests something awful happened somewhere along the line, Al appears to see Lea less as a protegee and more as his ticket to sponsorship deals and success, or perhaps as a marble slab he’s helped sculpt with doses of pills, potions and stern rebukes. A softer side is glimpsed in his interaction with Lea’s emotionally fragile fellow competitor Serena (Agata Buzek), a former flame who’s still very hot for him.
Although a potential sponsor who watches Lea striking poses praises her look as very “feminine,” and she and the other female contestants wear tons of makeup, spangly bikinis and stripper-style high heels, the extreme muscles and hormone-enhanced features blur the gender signifiers. Meanwhile, Lea insists that she “can’t” have a child and compete as well. So naturally the big narrational incident Amiel and co-writer Laurent Laviviere’s script springs on the competitor is the appearance of her ex-husband, Ben (Arieh Worthalter), with their 6-year-old son, Joe (Vidal Arzoni, adorbs), in tow, a child she hasn’t seen in four years.
A minor-league scam artist, Ben wants to off-load Joe on Lea (although he insists on calling her “Julia,” her birth name) so he can go scalp tickets at a nearby sports stadium for the day. Lea wants nothing to do with the kid, who is just going to be a distraction while she prepares for her big physique competition. At first, she tries to dump him on Serena, and when that doesn’t work, locks him in a hotel bathroom. (Which raises the question, what kind of hotel has toilets that lock from the outside?) Eventually, Joe gets parked in the left- luggage room behind the front desk, but the irrepressible kid manages to escape and Lea is compelled to deal with him in every sense.
Amiel and Fory aren’t afraid to push the limits of likability with Lea’s character, revealing a woman who has done everything to squeeze all the mother’s milk out of her system and literally airbrush herself with spray tan. DP Colin Leveque’s often umbral lighting setups, sliced with vivid stabs of color from the costumes, emphasize the theatricality of Lea’s world, a realm that’s reminiscent of the drag scene, discotheques and beauty pageants all at once. That impression is enhanced by the EDM musical choices that favor the sound of synthesizers. Squint your eyes and it’s almost like watching a Nicolas Winding Refn film but without the violence or black humor.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Days)
Production: A Unite de Production, Bande a Part Films production in co-production with KNM, RTS Radio Television Suisse, with the support of Pictanovo, Region Hauts-de-France, CNC Region Grand Est et Strasbourg Eurometropole, CNC – Suissimage, in association with Haut et Court Distribution, Arte, Cofinova 14, Indefilms 6
Cast: Julia Fory, Peter Mullan, Vidal Arzoni, Arieh Worthalter, Agata Buzek
Director: Elsa Amiel
Screenwriters: Elsa Amiel with Laurent Lariviere
Producers: Bruno Nahon, Caroline Nataf, Lionel Baier
Executive producers: Lionel Baier
Co-producer: Michel Merkt
Director of photography: Colin Leveque
Production designer: Valerie Rozanes
Costume designer: Yvett Rotscheid
Editors: Sylvie Lager, Caroline Detournay
Music: Fred Avril
Music supervisors: Pascal Mayer, Steve Bouyer
Casting: Emilie Delbee
Sales: MK2 Films
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