Ombline: Paris Cinema Fest Review

Melanie Thierry’s gripping turn anchors this compelling French prison drama.

Melanie Thierry stars as a mother raising her child behind bars in Stephane Cazes' debut feature.

PARIS -- Actress Melanie Thierry delivers a riveting performance as a young mother raising her child behind bars in Ombline, an impressive feature debut from Gallic writer-director Stephane Cazes. Although it occasionally steers toward the sugary side, this moving prison drama has enough gravitas to find Francophone takers and Euro TV slots following a September 12 French release.

Serving a three-year sentence after assaulting a police officer during a raid that saw her boyfriend accidentally killed, the quick-tempered, 20-year-old Ombline (Thierry) discovers that she’s pregnant and obliged to give birth while incarcerated.

With no close family members or friends to lend a helping hand, she decides to bring up her boy Lucas in the grim prison nursery, suffering through the usual sleepless nights, crying fits and diarrhea spells, not to mention endless shouting in the courtyard, a nasty guard (Nathalie Becue) and a growing feeling that she’s powerless as both a mother and a person.

Tracking with intimate detail every step of Ombline’s progress, Cazes initially offers up some valuable insights into the troubling reality of prison child-rearing – from the lack of decent medical care to the makeshift toys and dolls – revealing how women in such situations cope with solitude and minimal resources as they try to create suitable environments for their kids.

The film shifts gears midway through when Ombline is obliged to give Lucas up to a foster family (French prison rules only allow children to stay for the first 18 months) and then thrown back into the general population, where she’s stuck in a cell with a trashy tough-girl (Corinne Masiero, Rust & Bone) and her tight-lipped minion (Catherine Salee). With Lucas safely outside, the question then becomes whether Ombline can avoid the kind of trouble that got her jailed in the first place, and as various obstacles are thrown in her direction, she’s forced to either change her ways or risk losing her child altogether.

Although the 30-year-old Thierry has been around as an actress and model for a number of years, she’s definitely stepped up her game as of late with roles in recent auteur films like Bertrand Tavernier’s The Princess of Montpensier and Andre Techine’s Unforgivable. Here she offers up a fearless, highly physical performance as the troubled but warmhearted Ombline, and Cazes’ camera remains forever glued to her side, revealing her shifting expressions, sudden fits of rage and many—perhaps too many—tears.

Polished cinematography by Virginie Saint-Martin (Rashevekshi’s Tango) and gloomy prison decors by Andre Frosny (JCVD) complete a pro package that leans towards the TV side. Music by Cyrille Aufort (Splice) is sometimes overused, while editing by veteran Jeanne Kef (Camille Claudel) has the scenes play out a tad too long, hammering home the emotions after we’ve already gotten the point.

English-language title on subtitled print was The Meaning of Sentences—a translation of the rather cheesy original French title that would be best left in solitary.

Production companies: Dibona Films, Arsam International, Entre Chien et Loup
Cast: Melanie Thierry, Corinne Masiero, Catherine Salee, Nathalie Becue
Director, screenwriter: Stephane Cazes
Producers: Jeremy Zelnik, Ilann Girard, Diana Elbaum, Sebastien Delloye
Director of photography: Virginie Saint-Martin
Production designer: André Frosny
Music: Cyrille Aufort
Costume designer: Charlotte David
Editor: Jeanne Kef
Sales Agent: Arsam International
No rating, 96 minutes.

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