Free Hands (Les mains libres): Berlin Review

Mezzanine Films
Overcomplicated, underwhelming romantic drama muddles the lines between art and reality.


BERLIN -- (Forum) A classic case of a first-time feature director biting off more than can be comfortably chewed, Free Hands loses focus of the ill-fated love-story at its core within a counterproductively complex film-within-film (-within-film) structure. A belated big-screen debut behind the camera for 55-year-old director/co-writer Brigitte Sy - frequent collaborator of revered French auteur Philippe Garrel (and mother of his son Louis) -- it's a surprising choice for the supposedly cutting-edge Forum section here. The film was released in France as long ago as June (to fairly respectable notices), and creatively is much less adventurous, and much more conventional, than it superficially appears.

The presence of established art-house name Ronit Elkabetz -- the Israeli star of Late Wedding and The Band's Visit -- in the central role is the main selling-point, along with the intriguingly autobiographical elements of a plot which also bears striking similarities to the recent life of Beatrice Dalle (who met her husband when he was serving a jail-sentence.) But a sombre coda and closing dedication suggests that what we've been watching may well be drawn very directly from Sy's own traumatic experiences -- not that this makes the movie any iota better or worse than a picture entirely made up from scratch from its maker's imaginations.

Barbara Vidal (Elkabetz) is a filmmaker who, like Sy, has worked for some time inside prisons. For her latest project, she interviews several inmates of a jail near Paris, then casts them as themselves in a project which (from what we can gather) is closer to cinema-verite than any kind of dramatization. One of her subjects is the grizzled Michel (Brandt), a tough but sensitively soulful career criminal -- his facial resemblance to oft-incarcerated author Jean Genet is presumably far from accidental -- nearing the end of an 11-year stretch for robbery. During the rehearsal process Barbara and Michel edge toward intimacy -- both knowing that such contact is strictly against the rules of engagement between prisoners and visiting professionals.

Reality and art start to merge as Barbara's evolving script incorporates elements of her illicit romance -- and things get really tricky when it seems, roughly an hour in, what we're watching may be a film about the making of a film about the making of a film. Expanding her half-hour 2005 short L'endroit ideal to feature length, Sy and her co-writer Gaelle Mace confusingly (and self-referentially) tries to navigate several layers of reality and fiction. Our comprehension and engagement are repeatedly hampered by the fact that many of the settings, characters, situations and performances in Free Hands (Les mains libres) smack of artifice and contrivance -- of Michel's fellow inmates, for example, only Adama Doumbia's racially abused Roel comes across anything like a genuine jailbird.

An eleventh hour revelation that one of the major characters is (like Sy in real life) HIV-positive, meanwhile, is thrown into the mix in strangely casual fashion, and feels like a desperate -- and counterproductive -- last-ditch attempt to amp up the emotionalism of what have become overwrought but tediously inert proceedings.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival, Forum
Production company: Mezzanine Films
Cast: Ronit Elkabetz, Carlo Brandt, Noemie Lvovsky, Adam Doumbia, Francois Negret, Camille Figuereo
Director: Brigitte Sy
Screenwriters: Brigitte Sy, Gaelle Mace
Producers: Mathieu Bonpoint, Claire Trinquet
Director of photography: Frederic Serve
Production designer: Francoise Arnaud
Music: Daniel Mille
Costume designer: Francoise Arnaud
Editor: Julie Dupre
Sales: Films Boutique, Berlin
No rating, 103 minutes