'M': Film Review | Venice 2017

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
Redouanne Harjane and Sara Forestier in 'M.'
Gets an F.

Cesar-winner Sara Forestier's debut as writer-director stars the actress herself alongside Redouanne Harjane and Jean-Pierre Leaud.

The so-far-so-stellar career of French actress Sara Forestier hits a rare speed bump in cockamamie romance M, a crashingly misguided writing/directing debut for the dual Cesar winner. Most unwisely casting herself as a stammering teen who embarks on a relationship with an older dude from the wrong side of the tracks, the 30-year-old shows few signs of learning from the many talented directors with whom she's already worked. The intermittently embarrassing results nevertheless managed to pick up the "Label" award from promotional organization Europa Cinemas when premiering at Venice, which will boost international exposure after its French bow on November 29.

But it's hard to imagine even indulgent Gallic audiences embracing this calculated, manipulative, saccharinely precious nonsense, which wastes beloved, eminent veteran Jean-Pierre Leaud in the largely chair-bound role of our fey heroine's eccentric, elderly papa. He looks on ineffectually as his two daughters — 18-year-old Lila (Forestier) and brattish youngster Soraya (Liv Andren) — follow their wayward paths towards adulthood. And while Soraya is a proper little motormouth, her big sis is rendered near-mute by a cripplingly extreme speech impediment. 

Socially maladroit, she finds some distraction from her woes in the unlikely form of thirtysomething Mo (Redouanne Harjane), a talented cook and part-time Fast & Furious-style car racer. This handsome, brooding chap secretly grapples with his own communication problems, as he's barely able to read or write. The duo bump into each other at a bus stop and embark on a stop-start affair which eventually gets physical, the implication being that this is Lila's first such experience of the opposite sex. But the course of cinematic love very seldom runs smooth, and sure enough screenwriter Forestier places several arbitrary obstacles in the way of her two-dimensional creations.

Forestier burst onto the scene fully formed at 16 in Abdellatif Kechiche's Games of Love and Chance (2003), winning the Cesar for the most promising younger actress. With directorial names like Claude Lelouch, Bertrand Blier, Alain Resnais, Jacques Doillon on her glittering resume, she graduated to Best Actress honors seven years later for The Names of Love, and has since picked up another two nominations, including in the title role of Katell Quillevere's Suzanne (2013).

She has now assembled quite the team to aid her transition to the directors' chair, including such skilled veterans as cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman (Oscar nominated for The Artist) and editor Joelle Hache. The latter is just one of no fewer than six credited cutters, alongside Kechiche regulars Eric Armbruster and Pauline Casalis, Julie Delpy collaborator Isabelle Devinck, Louise Decelle (who edited Forestier's 2006 vehicle Hell) plus the director herself. Despite this gallery of notables, the picture looks distinctly ordinary and the editing team does little to make the 99-minute running time any less of a slog. Too many cooks?

It's a pity, however, that Forestier handled scriptwriting duties all on her own. Though little Andren's live wire turn as hoydenish Soraya enlivens proceedings no end, hardly any detail or development rings true. The story of M (any echoes of the Fritz Lang classic of identical title are most emphatically not to Forestier's advantage) is little more than a compendium of character quirks and uninspired contrivances. There's minimal chemistry between the lovebird leads — Harjane often looks decidedly uncomfortable — amid the myriad arbitrarily oddball music cues on the soundtrack.

Forestier frequently goes way, way over the top with Lila's stammering and physical mannerisms, a classic example of the hazards implicit in self-direction (especially when the individual concerned has minimal directorial experience). At no point is the age gap between Lila and Mo ever commented upon, perhaps a deliberate ploy to avoid drawing attention to the fact that Forestier looks, sounds and behaves a decade older than the character she's elected to play. France never has any shortage of bright teenage talent — it's a shame Forestier didn't have the sense to step back and give some ingenue the kind of chance she received from that remarkable talent spotter Kechiche, back in the day.

Production company: Chi-Fou-Mi Productions
Cast: Sara Forestier, Redouanne Harjane, Jean-Pierre Leaud, Liv Andren
Director / Screenwriter: Sara Forestier
Producers: Hugo Selignac, Vincent Mazel
Cinematographer: Guillaume Schiffman
Production designers: Virginie Destine, Catherine Jarrier-Prieur
Costume designer: Catherine Baba
Editors: Eric Armbruster, Pauline Casalis, Louise Decelle, Isabelle Devinck, Sara Forestier, Joelle Hache
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Days)
Sales: MK2, Paris (fionnuala.jamison@mk2.com)
In French
No Rating, 99 minutes