My Name is Hmm... (Je m'appelle Hmm...): Venice Review

Agnes B better stick to her day job.

The directorial debut of French fashion designer Agnes B stars Sylvie Testud as the mother of an abused child that escapes with a Scottish truck driver.

A little French girl who’s been abused by her father finds an unlikely surrogate daddy in My Name is Hmm… (Je m’appelle Hmm…), the feature directorial debut of Agnes Trouble, better known as French fashion designer and occasional film producer Agnes B.

Unfortunately, the film is as artily contrived as its title suggests -- it actually refers to the girl’s refusal to give her name to strangers -- and feels like it’s been directed by someone who might like cinema but has no idea how the different elements of a movie work together, much less how to obtain these on set in the first place.

Though clearly well-intentioned, and with French arthouse darling Sylvie Testud (Lourdes, La Vie en Rose) in the flatly acted role of the worried mother, this has practically zero chance of traveling on anything but the brand sexiness of its director, which might explain the film’s Venice and New York festival slots.

Celine (Lou-Lelia Demerliac, so wooden she should worry about woodworm) is an 11-year-old girl who has to take care of her younger siblings (Emile Gautier, Emilie Ducourau) because her waitress mother (Testud) works late and her unemployed father (Jacques Bonnaffe) is a listless couch potato who only gets off his butt to sexually abuse Celine.

During a school trip to the Atlantic coast -- the family’s so poor they’ve never been to the seaside -- Celine escapes and seeks refuge in the sleeping area of an unlocked truck. When she wakes up, the driver, Peter (Glasgow-born artist Douglas Gordon, jovial but not much else), has long since gone back onto the road.  

The tattooed and leather-clad trucker simply looks after the girl, asks no questions and never takes her to the police, even after he’s understood what she’s gone through and he’s seen her reported missing on a TV in a supermarket. Trouble explains his odd behavior by having Peter show a picture of his wife and kids, accompanied by one word: “dead” (Celine understands a little English; he speaks some French except when he goes to the supermarket or has to talk to law-enforcement officials).

While the story has some potential, the execution is weak and the film, at 121 minutes, much too long. After a prolog, Name initially seems to be about the overworked mother; then the unconvincingly guilt-wracked father; then Celine -- who in a terribly twee twist uses her Barbie doll as a confidante -- while the inexplicable finale seems to suggest Peter’s actually the protagonist. The screenplay, by Trouble and Jean-Pol Fargeau, can’t handle the transitions or provide any credible backstory or dialog that advances the narrative or even sounds like something a normal human being might say.

The film contains numerous stylistic flourishes, including a scene in black-and-white; jump cuts; freeze frames; arty inserts shot with different equipment; written texts; drawings; two Butoh dancers that perform in a forest and, weirdest of all, short segments that show new scenes of the film being played on a monitor. But none of these elements advance the story, prompt a deeper emotional response or suggest something new about the characters, reducing them to meaningless window-dressing for what little story their is: the relationship between Peter and Celine.

The medium-quality digital photography by TV veteran Jean-Philippe Bouyer seems to capture things on the fly without much thought for overall coherence. Similarly, the music -- mainly some dirge-like Vivaldi -- feels ladled on because films need a score, not because a particular piece music can amplify or help suggest meaning or emotion.

Having been involved in the art world as a designer and a producer (notably of Spring Breakers director Harmony Korine), Trouble has managed to get people like Testud, actor Gregoire Colin, who appears in a cameo, and Gordon (himself a director of arty documentaries like Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait) to appear in her film. There’s even a bonfire scene that’s credited to Jonas Mekas and co-stars Paris-based Marxist philosopher Toni Negri.

Too bad it doesn’t all add up to something worth seeing.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)
Production company: Love Streams Productions
Cast: Lou-Lelia Demerliac, Douglas Gordon, Sylvie Testud, Jacques Bonnaffe, Marie-Christine Barrault, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, Jean-François Garreau, Toni Negri
Director: Agnes Trouble aka Agnes b.
Screenwriters: Agnes Trouble, Jean-Pol Fargeau
Producer: Christophe Audeguis
Director of photography: Jean-Philippe Bouyer
Production designers: Jean-Benoit Dunckel, Julien Langendorf 
Music: Jean-Benoit Dunckel, Julien Langendorf
Costume designer: Francois Juge
Editor: Jeff Nicorosi
Sales: Films Boutique
No rating, 121 minutes.