'Party Girl': Cannes Review

Party Girl Still - H 2014
Elzevir Films

Party Girl Still - H 2014

An endearing if meandering portrait of an older woman making the jump from the night life to the married life.

This debut drama from three young French filmmakers made its world premiere as the opening night selection in this year's Cannes Un Certain Regard sidebar.

CANNES -- “Oh, the night life ain’t no good life/But it’s my life,” is how the famous Willie Nelson song goes, and no where is this more apparent than in Party Girl, a docu-style French dramedy about an aging cabaret girl who tries to change her ways by getting hitched to a former client.

Starring the actual people the story is based on, and directed by the heroine’s own son, Samuel Theis -- along with co-directors Marie Amachoukeli and Claire Burger -- this real-life narrative veers too close to home to remain entirely captivating, losing itself in scenes that draw a fine line between improvisation and reality television. But as a portrait of a woman looking for happiness in old age (and one that recalls Sebastien Lelio’s 2013 critical favorite, Gloria) it offers up some touching moments, with star Angelique Litzenburger playing herself through times both good and bad.

A sort of retiree's Runaway Bride seen through the lens of John Cassavetes and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Party Girl  -- which ostensibly has nothing to do with the 1958 Nicholas Ray film of the same title -- is a somewhat low-key choice to open this year’s Un Certain Regard sidebar, though such a slot will definitely grant its trio of filmmakers strong exposure, especially on their home turf. Overseas action will also be boosted by Cannes credentials, but should be limited to niche distributors and VOD outlets specializing in foreign fare.

An extended opening, set within a nightclub bordering France and Germany, plunges us into the seedy world of 60-year-old Angelique (Litzenburger), who’s spent most of her life working these establishments, where the modus operandi is to seduce clients into buying overpriced drinks. But such hotesses de bar have a hard time making ends meet, and since she’s nearing retirement age, Angelique decides to take the plunge and move in with one of her customers, Michel (Joseph Bour), a former miner hoping to settle down with a comfortable pension and two-story brick house.

Yet marriage, especially for someone who’s always lived on the fringe, is never an easy undertaking, and as the wedding day approaches, Angelique begins having second thoughts about her newfound lifestyle and affection for Michel. To help her get through all the nuptial jitters, she summons her three children -- sons Samuel (Theis) and Mario (Mario Theis), and daughter Severine (Severine Litzenburger) -- to her side, while reconnecting with her teenage daughter, Cynthia (Cynthia Litzenburger), who she gave up for adoption at a young age.

It’s a rather familiar rom-com device to see a bride-to-be questioning her future, but it's given a slightly new twist here, taking place in a marginal world that’s rarely the subject of such stories -- which is just another way for the film to show how universal they truly are. Indeed, Angelique is only an older, edgier version of characters played by Katharine Hepburn or Julia Roberts in various like-minded movies, and her struggle for both independence and fulfillment rings true through all the mascara, piercings and miniskirts.

But while the three directors – all graduates of France’s prestigious La Femis film school -- are certainly enamored with their subject (after all, she is one of their moms), they sometimes allow that to get in the way of efficient filmmaking, letting seemingly improvised scenes run on for no major reason, as the plot heads pretty much where one would expect it to. And even if things build toward an extended wedding sequence that’s undeniably moving at times, the material doesn’t always feel fresh enough, despite the unique setting and cast of true-to-life characters.

Capturing the naturalistic performances with handheld widescreen camerawork, DP Julien Poupard gives most of the film a documentary-like sheen, adding plenty of color to make the cabaret scenes stand out. Music by Nicolas Weil, Sylvain Ohrel and Alexandre Lier -- who also scored the film Insecure -- helps boost the drama alongside lots of background club music, including a track by The Scorpions that underlines the hard rock-hard knocks life that keeps sucking Angelique back in.

Production companies: Elzevir Films

Cast: Angelique Litzenburger, Joseph Bour, Mario Theis, Samuel Theis, Severine Litzenburger, Cynthia Litzenburger

Directors, screenwriters: Marie Amachoukeli, Claire Burger, Samuel Theis, based on an original idea by Samuel Theis

Producers: Denis Carot, Marie Masmonteil

Director of photography: Julien Poupard

Production designer: Nicolas Migot

Costume designer: Laurence Forgue Lockhart

Editor: Frederic Baillehaiche

Music: Nicolas Weil, Sylvain Ohrel, Alexandre Lier

Sales agent: Pyramide Films

No rating, 95 minutes