‘Julie and the Shoe Factory’: Film Review | Palm Springs 2017

Courtesy of The Palm Springs International Film Festival
Unexpectedly charming.

Paul Calori and Kostia Testut’s debut feature is a working-class musical driven by a spirited display of female empowerment.

A musical comedy about the struggles of striking workers might impress some as a specifically French form of entertainment, but at its core Julie and the Shoe Factory represents a relatably whimsical coming-of-age tale about a young woman’s search for her place in the world. Following a July domestic release, this surprisingly enticing film’s quest to capitalize on renewed stateside interest in movie musicals could pay off for an agile distributor or streamer.

Filmmakers Paul Calori and Kostia Testut’s inclination to blend social realism and musical fantasy clearly favors the latter in their depiction of unemployed twentysomething Julie, who takes the only job that she can find working at the local shoe factory in her small southeastern city after her dismissal from a thankless retail position. Her change of luck prompts the film’s first musical number, when Julie bursts into song as she feels her prospects improving, since Jacques Couture isn’t just any ladies’ footwear designer. For decades the factory’s luxury shoes have adorned the feet of Paris’ most style-conscious women, but the practicalities of the workplace and ready-to-wear fashions have reduced demand, while competition from cheaper imports is pressuring the firm’s bottom line.

Rumors about an impending sale surface during Julie’s first day working for prim supervisor Francoise (Clementine Yelnik), which is not an auspicious sign, so she tries to remain below the radar and stick to her assigned tasks preparing inventory for shipping under Francoise’s watchful eye. Her low-profile strategy doesn’t escape the notice of factory truck driver Samy (Olivier Chantreau), who’s always happy to see a fresh new face around the place, but Julie rebuffs his advances and tries to remain focused on work. After factory manager Felicien (Francois Morel) announces that the facility will soon be closing temporarily for an “upgrade,” the mostly female workshop staff decide to take their concerns about potential layoffs to the Paris headquarters office, persuading Julie to reluctantly join them.

Their meeting with CEO Xavier “XL” Laurent (Loic Corbery) comes to little after he expertly defuses the situation with his irresistible charm, swearing that the factory will remain open. Unconvinced that they can trust Laurent to safeguard their careers, the workers call a strike, shutting down production until he responds to their demand to meet in person and forcing Julie to choose between her new job and solidarity with her co-workers.

Writer-directors Calori and Testut have selected a significant challenge for their first feature, which succeeds more on its charm and determination than the classic attributes of movie musicals. Huge production numbers, fabulous costumes and celebrity songwriters don’t really figure into their low-budget film, but it’s undeniably got heart. While the filmmakers wrote the script, more than a half-dozen original songs were all crafted specifically for the movie by a variety of contemporary musicians and are performed by the actors in an accessibly un-showy style.

Etienne’s Julie, who starts off as earnest, even sulky, blossoms under the influence of her radical co-workers as her songs gain increasing confidence and a degree of self-expression. More than a dozen mostly middle-aged supporting female castmembers make a distinct impression, with each given a specific part to play in the workers’ strike and all consistently delivering during the song-and-dance numbers. The men’s roles are more subdued and Chantreau’s character even seems somewhat underwritten, but Corbery totally owns every scene in which he appears.

Production values overall are respectable for an indie feature, with the filmmakers and their choreographers favoring location shooting rather than interior sets. Especially when the musical scenes transpire within the factory, they take on a robust physicality that reinforces the film’s working-class roots.

Production company: Loin derriere l’Oural
Cast: Pauline Etienne, Olivier Chantreau, Francois Morel, Loic Corbery, Julie Victor, Clementine Yelnik
Directors-writers: Paul Calori, Kostia Testut
Producer: Xavier Delmas
Director of photography: Julien Meurice
Editor: Damien Maestraggi
Music: Olivier Daviaud
Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival (New Voices/New Visions)
Sales: Films Boutique

83 minutes