'French Dolls' ('Tiens-toi droite'): Film Review

French Dolls Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Wild Bunch/Orange Studio

French Dolls Still - H 2014

Three women muddle along in this middling second feature

French actresses Marina Fois, Noemie Lvovsky and Laura Smet headline this crisscrosser about three women trapped in their lives and jobs

Three Frenchwomen try to navigate their private and professional lives in French Dolls (Tiens-toi droite), the second feature from writer-director Katia Lewkowicz, whose debut film, Bachelor Days Are Over, premiered in the 2011 Cannes Critics’ Week. Ambitious in scope and practically unthinkable in even the U.S. indie landscape, this strongly acted female-driven drama is finally too focused on vividly recreating the messy and tough lives of the protagonists to say anything more detailed or incisive. With three local marquee names in the form of Noemie Lvovsky, Laura Smet and Marina Fois, this late-November release should be able to corner some initial action at the local box-office, where another star-heavy film from a female director, Audrey Dana’s French Women, did solid business earlier this year. However, longer-term and especially foreign prospects will be more limited.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the forte of actress-turned-director Lewkowicz (Secret Defense, Declaration of War) is her way with actors, and after her male-dominated first feature, she here applies that talent to a trio of gifted lead actresses, who all deliver (though it has to be mentioned the budding director didn’t exactly cast anyone against type).

The youngest of the three women, seen in three loosely connected stories, is Lili (Smet, the daughter of French rock icon Johnny Hallyday and actress Nathalie Baye), a Miss New Caledonia who’s vying for the title of "Miss Francophonie" and whose main motivation is that she’s simply looking for a job. Switching professions is Louise (Fois), in her early forties, who leaves the familiar but perhaps somewhat dead-end feeling family dry cleaning business for an exciting but also very different job at a doll factory where a new, more realistic model is in preparation (the mood board at the company’s research office provides the film with its unusual but thematically coherent opening shot).

Initially, it seems like the only reason Louise has made the switch is that her lover (Jonathan Zaccai) works there, though she finally becomes very invested in what is basically the French equivalent of the Lammily doll. Also in her forties is Sam (Lvovsky), the mother of what the French call a famille nombreuse (a clan with a lot of children). Besides her three young daughters, Sam’s also got twins on the way and she comes into contact with Louise when one of her kids, the precocious vlogger Lola (Lina Ramdane), takes over the doll factory’s test panel (a subplot that vies for the title of most credulity-straining development along with the occasionally insane behavior of Lili).  

All three come into contact with Lili when she becomes the official model for the more realistically proportioned toy. The newly anointed miss, however, finds her own measurements hard to accept: "People’ll think there’s something wrong with me," she says when she compares "her" figurine with that of the traditional but anatomically grotesque dolls for children. Though the message is quite blunt, not all that original and certainly not sufficiently developed, the fact Lewkowicz has decided to make it central to her film will win her praise. It is also still (unfortunately) extremely refreshing to see normal, working-class women at the center of a film, though Lewkowicz, who co-wrote the screenplay with Maud Ameline, isn’t a good enough writer-director to make the ordinary lives of her protagonists inherently fascinating or cinematic.

The early going is punchy enough, with editors Fabrice Rouaud and Elif Uluengin imbuing the material with a feverish energy as they quickly alternate between the storylines, effectively suggesting that a contemporary woman is constantly dealing with more than one thing at a time. Jun Miyake’s (initially percussion-driven) score, which is easily the film’s standout technical standout, further helps to underline this. But as the storylines start to come together, the film’s pleasingly quivering tension starts to disperse, not aided by transitions that are particularly on-the-nose -- such as when a factory worker played by an underused Lola Duenas screams “push, push, push” to some movers and the film then cuts to Sam mid-delivery -- and some rather obvious, borderline inelegant plot twists that braid the different stories together. A cop-out ending is meant to finally celebrate women's resilience but doesn't work at all because it entirely undermines the film's otherwise quite gritty sense of realism.

Production companies: Rectangle Productions, Orange Studio, Wild Bunch, Scope Pictures

Cast: Marina Fois, Noemie Lvovsky, Laura Smet, Sarah Adler, Lola Duenas, Jonathan Zaccai, Michael Abiteboul, Dominique Labourier, Richard Sammel, Lina Ramdane, Marilou Lopes Benites, Juliette Mabilat, Elsa Bidegain, Sixtine Dutheil

Director: Katia Lewkowicz

Screenplay: Katia Lewkowicz, Maud Ameline

Producers: Edouard Weil, Alice Girard

Co-producers: Christoph Friedel, Claudia Steffen, Genevieve Lemal

Director of photography: Nicolas Gaurin

Production designer: Emmanuelle Duplay

Costume designer: Nathalie Benros

Editor: Fabrice Rouaud, Elif Uluengin

Music: Jun Miyake

Casting: Elodie Demey

Sales: Wild Bunch, Orange Studio


No rating, 96 minutes