'Little Tickles' ('Les chatouilles'): Film Review | Cannes 2018

A sometimes clumsy, but finally fierce and winning take on a tough topic.

This French film starring Andrea Bescond, Karin Viard and Pierre Deladonchamps revolves around a dancer grappling with memories of sexual abuse by a close family friend.

A French drama about childhood sexual abuse and its toxic consequences, Little Tickles (Les chatouilles) is the kind of mess of a movie that wins you over with its sincerity and passion, as well as its bold bursts of humor. The film stars and is co-directed by Andrea Bescond (with Eric Metayer), based on her autobiographical one-woman show, and the result bristles with the intimacy and intensity of lived experience; you want to forgive all the missteps and moments of overreaching. Premiering in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar, this admirable, risk-taking debut certainly has enough going for it to recommend distribution beyond French borders.

Like Jennifer Fox’s The Tale (much buzzed about at Sundance and upcoming on HBO), Little Tickles flouts narrative and stylistic convention in tackling an agonizingly tricky topic: The story’s chronology is scrambled, the lines between reality, memory and fantasy blurred. And as with its American counterpart, those conceptual gambles alternately pay off and backfire, with engrossing, inspired stretches often followed by clunky touches that yank you out of the movie’s grip.

What finally distinguishes Little Tickles are the flashes of comedy that enliven it, and relieve it from unremitting bleakness. Playing Odette, a thirtysomething dancer haunted by the trauma of being molested as a child by a family friend, Bescond is a warmly amusing, sharp-witted presence; she effectively anchors both the movie's lighter and darker moments, turning its tonal zigzagging into a considerable strength.

Little Tickles opens with Odette dancing against a black backdrop, her furious interpretive moves suggesting a gnawing anguish in need of release. The filmmakers then flash back to Odette as a prepubescent girl (Cyrille Mairesse). Middle-aged Gilbert (the excellent Pierre Deladonchamps, also seen in competition standout Sorry Angel) enters her room, closes the door and asks her to come to the bathroom with him so he can dress her up “like a doll.” What happens next is mercifully left off-screen, though subsequent episodes are shown, tactfully. (In one, as Gilbert drives Odette home from ballet class, the camera remains on him, framing the pedophile from above the waist in a subtly creepy low-angle shot but sparing us Odette’s reaction to his abuse.)

A suave, successful family man — he’s married and has two sons — Gilbert is the trusted best friend of Odette’s parents, Mado and Fabrice (Gallic mainstays Karin Viard and Clovis Cornillac). They think nothing, for example, of letting him take Odette on a weekend trip, where he molests her in the middle of the night as his kids sleep just a few feet away. Mado, especially, is devoted to — and clearly a bit smitten with — Gilbert, rationalizing his conspicuous attachment to Odette by saying she’s like the daughter he never had.

While Bescond and Metayer handle the abuse scenes with sensitivity, their hand is heavier in other flashbacks — notably those featuring a distracting Ariane Ascaride as Odette’s dance teacher; the filmmakers have perhaps not yet mastered the art of reining in scenery-gnashing screen vets.

Another problematic strand consists of the adult Odette’s appointments with a sympathetic therapist (Carole Franck). In the kind of direct dialogue between past and present that often works better onstage, Odette literally walks her shrink through her memories (an especially silly moment sets one of their sessions in the backyard of Odette’s childhood home, the doctor’s desk incongruously planted on the lawn). It’s a pretty stale narrative device to begin with, and here feels glaringly gimmicky — as do other instances of forced whimsy, like Odette’s idol Rudolf Nureyev leaping out of a poster and onto a stage, where he spouts Russian-accented quips between pirouettes. Much better is a more straightforward fantasy sequence, in which Odette and her childhood BFF Manu (the rapper Gringe) fulfill their dream of going to the U.S., where she joins a krumping circle in a parking lot.

By far the film’s most vital, affecting passages trace Odette’s struggles to maintain her career as she numbs her pain with drugs, alcohol and casual sex. Briskly paced, with striking hip-hop and contemporary dance sequences — rehearsals, performances, auditions — and a sprinkle of slapstick, this section pulls us into the protagonist’s turbulent emotional state without resorting to addiction-and-promiscuity histrionics or cliches.  

It’s during this phase that Odette meets Lenny (the very good Gregory Montel), a kind, funny osteopath who falls in love with her but never grasps the extent of her issues. The sweet buildup and swift breakdown of their relationship is both poignant and persuasive.

Bescond is so engaging and nuanced — the actress makes Odette’s suffering palpable beneath every breezily delivered wisecrack — that she outshines some of the more seasoned supporting players. Viard (Lolo), particularly, struggles to find the right register, leaning so far into Mado’s shrewishness that she comes off almost like a middle-class version of Allison Janney’s monstrous matriarch from I, Tonya.

At the same time, it’s commendable that the writer-directors don’t grant Mado a moment of redemption. The film doesn’t sugarcoat its damaged characters, nor does it drown them in tears of catharsis or confrontation — even in a final act featuring a courtroom showdown. Little Tickles grabs its excruciating subject forcefully, and grapples with it in a sometimes clumsy but unmistakably personal way. This is Bescond’s story, and it’s a testament to her fine performance and fierce vision that you don’t forget that for a second.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Production company: Les Films du Kiosque
Directors: Andrea Bescond and Eric Metayer
Writers: Andrea Bescond and Eric Metayer (adapted from the play
Les chatouilles ou la danse de la colere)
Cast: Andrea Bescond, Karin Viard, Clovis Cornillac, Pierre Deladonchamps, Gregory Montel, Carole Franck, Gringe, Ariane Ascaride, Cyrille Mairesse, Leonie Simaga
Executive producers: Francis Kraus, Denis Pineau-Valencienne
Cinematography: Pierre Aim
Editor: Valerie Deseine
Music: Clement Ducole
Costumes: Isabelle Pannetier
Casting: Emmanuelle Prevost
International Sales: Orange Studio

103 minutes