‘L’Astragale’: Film Review

L'Astragale Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Alfama Films

L'Astragale Still - H 2015

 A well-performed throwback where film noir meets female power

Leila Bekhti (“A Better Life”) and Reda Kateb (“A Prophet”) star in Brigitte Sy's period piece

A true tale of Bonnie & Clyde, but one that’s much more about Bonnie than her beau, L’Astragale was an immense critical and public success when it was first published in France back in 1965. Written by the young, Algeria-born Albertine Sarrazin – whose autobiographical account of her life as a stick-up girl, prostitute, prisoner and bisexual lover, made her the distaff equivalent of Jean Genet – the novel was first brought to the screen in 1968 by director Guy Casaril, with actress Marlene Jobert (We Won’t Grow Old Together) making a splash in the lead role. (Horst Buchholz, aka Chico from The Magnificent Seven, played her partner-in-crime.)

Nearly half a century later, director Brigitte Sy (Les Mains libres) is taking another stab at Albertine’s adventures, in an artful black-and-white adaptation starring the talented duo of Leila Bekhti and Reda Kateb – both of whom hail from Algerian origins and broke out onto the scene in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet. Less a romantic crime drama than an intimate character study, the film at times recalls the scaled-down 60's films of Godard or Philippe Garrel (who Sy worked with as an actress and also had two children with: Louis and Esther, both cast in this movie). To that extent, it may be a trying affair for those who want to watch a Gun Crazy-style caper, but the performances definitely help make some of the emotional bullets fly.

Featuring stark, high-contrast cinematography by Frederic Serve, the movie opens with a scene straight out of classic film noir: Albertine (Bekhti) scales the wall of a prison, breaking her foot in the process. (“Astragale” is the French word for anklebone.) She crawls in the mud along a desolate country rode until crossing paths with Julien (Kateb), a live-by-night gangster who happens to be driving by. Julien quickly takes Albertine under his wing, getting her fake ID papers and setting her up in a Paris hotel run by Nini (Jocelyne Desverchere), one of his many mistresses.

A long tale of amour fou ensues between the two bandits, with Julien away pulling off robberies in the provinces and Albertine walking the streets of Montmartre to make a few bucks. The prostitution scenes, where Bekhti dons a cropped blond wig, with a cigarette dangling from her lips, definitely recall those in Godard’s Vivre sa vie – although Albertine is less passive than the sad fille de joie played by Anna Karina, writing in her spare time while remaining on the run from the authorities.

Eventually the cops catch up with her, but not before she reunites with Marie (Esther Garrel), a former lover and fellow stick-up partner who shot a store clerk, resulting in the girls’ arrest and imprisonment. Torn between Julien, Marie and the police, Albertine’s reckless trajectory is portrayed by Sy – who co-wrote the script with former Cahiers du cinema critic Serge Le Peron – as one of both passion and abandon: she’s willing to give up many things for her man, but she strives to maintains her own share of dignity, snapping back at those who oppress her and recording everything down in her notebooks, which will later become her novels.

Bekhti offers up a subtly intense performance as the tragic and wayward Albertine, playing a woman who yearns to be her own boss at a time – France in 1957-58 – when that wasn’t yet possible. As an escaped convict and Algerian orphan who suffered plenty of abuse as a child, Albertine is what you would call “damaged goods,” but that doesn’t stop her from trying to live her love story to the fullest – a fact repeated in voiceover taken from Sarrazin’s book, or in the way Sy captures the emotions spreading across Bekhti’s face as her character awaits for Julien to arrive.

As an outlaw who’s both sincere and shady, Kateb gets a lot across with few words, and the scenes between him and Bekhti are definitely some of the finest. The rest of the cast is strong in a film that’s clearly catered towards the performances (sometimes frustratingly so), especially when the director uses rear-screen projection techniques to create an almost theatrical space on screen. L’Astragale pays homage to the doomed lovers of classic thrillers, but its faces are those of France today.  

Production companies: Alfama Films, France 3 Cinema
Cast: Leila Bekhti, Reda Kateb, Esther Garrel, Jocelyne Desverchere, India Hair
Director: Brigitte Sy
Screenwriters: Brigitte Sy, Serge Le Peron, based on the novel by Albertine Sarrazin
Producer: Paolo Branco
Director of photography: Frederic Serve
Production designer: Francoise Arnaud
Costume designer: Francoise Arnaud
Editor: Julie Dupre
Composer: Beatrice Thiriet
International sales: Alfama Films

No rating, 97 minutes