17 Girls (17 Filles): Cannes Review

French teenage "pregnancy pact" tale offers plenty of show but not enough tell.

First feature from Delphine and Muriel Coulin is a far-fetched and inadvertently funny film about a group of teenage girls purposely trying to get pregnant.

Inspired by a 2008 incident where 18 American high school students were involved in an alleged “pregnancy pact,” the French dramedy 17 Girls (17 Filles) offers a highly aestheticized yet incredibly hollow meditation on contemporary teenage angst. Liable to raise eyebrows among older audiences (and perhaps other body parts among adolescent boys), this well-acted piece of arthouse eye-candy should find berths abroad after its premiere in Cannes’ Critics’ Week.

The much mediatized events took place in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and quickly became the source of public debate, as well as at least two TV shows, a documentary and a Lifetime movie. Filmmaking sisters Delphine and Muriel Coulin, here in their first feature outing after several shorts (one of which screened at the 2001 Critics’ Week), transpose the action to a humdrum seaside town in Brittany, casting a coterie of attractive actresses and non-actresses to play a group of girls who decide they all want to be pregnant at once.

The leader of the pack is the recently expecting Camille (Louise Grinberg, The Class), whose killer looks and Mean Girl-ish personality convince her buddies that having a bun in the oven is way cooler than having lots of friends on Facebook. Out of jealousy, curiosity, but mostly peer pressure, they all follow suit, and it isn’t hard to find willing accomplices among their male counterparts, even if it has to be the same, lucky dude (Arthur Verret).

There are a few hitches along the way, though, and one of the gals, Clementine (Yara Pilartz), has such a tough time landing a “donor” that she literally counter-prostitutes herself by paying a fellow student to sleep with her (but only after he ups his price by 30 euros!). Otherwise, the girls provide a firm advertisement for everything one shouldn’t do when pregnant, including drinking, smoking (both cigarettes and pot) and driving a car at night without a license.

If much of this seems far-fetched, and perhaps inadvertently funny at times, the fact that it’s based on real-life events doesn’t make the story more convincing. Clearly under the sway of Gus Vant Sant’s Elephant and Paranoid Park, the Coulins eschew any real social or psychological analysis of their characters, presenting a bunch of dreamy, rebellious girls who just want to have fun, and think that having babies is the way to do so. Meanwhile, the surrounding adults, with the exception of a straight-talking school nurse (actress-director Noemie Lvovsky), are either pure comic fodder (a teachers’ round-table is particularly hilarious) or, in the case of Camille’s mom (Florence Thomassin), inexplicably understanding.

This mostly superficial approach to adolescence is matched by an extremely showy aesthetic, which seems culled from Van Sant’s films and the polished world of music videos and fashion magazines. Cinematography by Jean-Louis Vialard (Tropical Malady) makes impressive use of the Canon 1D, but the gorgeous visuals reveal lots of pretty faces, bodies and landscapes, while doing little to service the narrative. Similarly, the decors by Benoit Pfauwadel stand out to the point that one begins admiring what’s hanging on the walls rather than what’s going on in front of them.

Performances are strong throughout. Both Grinberg and newcomer Pilartz help turn these 17 Girls into a watchable, if implausible, depiction of a phenomenon that seems no less mysterious by the film’s end.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival, Critics’ Week (Competition)
Production companies: Archipel 35, Arte France Cinema, in association with Banque Populaire Images 11, Cinemage 5, Uni Etoile 8, Soficinema 7, with participation of Canal Plus, CineCinema, Arte France
Cast: Louise Grinberg, Juliette Darche, Roxane Duran, Esther Garrel, Yara Pilartz, Solene Rigot, Noemie Lvovsky, Florence Thomassin, Carlo Brandt
Directors/screenwriters: Delphine Coulin, Muriel Coulin
Producer: Denis Freyd
Executive producer: Andre Bouvard
Director of photography: Jean-Louis Vialard
Production designer: Benoit Pfauwadel
Costume designer: Dorothee Guiraud
Editor: Guy Lecorne
Sales Agent: Films Distribution
No rating, 90 minutes