'Raising Colors' ('Volontaire'): Film Review

'G.I. Jane' gets a French art house makeover.

Relative newcomer Diane Rouxel stars opposite Lambert Wilson ('The Matrix Reloaded') as a young woman joining the French Navy in the second film from actress-turned-director Helene de Fillieres.

A petite young woman unsure of her future signs up for a job in the French Navy in Raising Colors (Volontaire), from actress-turned-director Helene Fillieres. This rigidly composed feature is a certainly a step up from Fillieres’ messy directorial debut, the bondage-laced Laetitia Casta vehicle Tied, though it does again explore how a woman takes charge in a male-dominated environment. That said, Raising Colors’ somewhat reserved exploration of the protagonist’s fascination with a male superior, while clearly inspired by and completely appropriate for the military setting, makes this more of a coolly detached art house puzzler than a full-blooded and more easily accessible coming-of-age story. 

Handsomely produced by Gaumont’s Sidonie Dumas and the director’s other half, producer Matthieu Tarot, this should nonetheless intrigue a segment of the art house population at home and in Francophile territories while scoring film weeks and festival bookings further afield. The presence of Lambert Wilson, of the Matrix sequels and Of Gods and Men fame, as the protagonist’s boss and object of intrigue (if perhaps not outright desire) can only help, though the film’s true star is breakout actress Diane Rouxel in the lead.  

Fillieres and cinematographer Eric Dumont immediately signal the mousy nature of Laure Baer (Rouxel) in the opening scene, where everyone around the kitchen table of the Baer household gets one or more close-ups but the girl’s face remains obscured until the very end of the scene. It’s perhaps not surprising she’s used to being almost invisible because her mom (Josiane Balasko, in a surprisingly serious cameo) is a famous actress. Though the screenplay by Fillieres and Mathias Gavarry — the latter better known for his work on juvenile comedies such as the Serial Teachers films — doesn’t provide a lot of backstory, one can imagine that Laure is rebelling against what her liberal family stands for when she signs up for the Navy, much to her mother’s displeasure.

Not entirely sure what she is looking for besides an actual job, she ends up becoming the secretary of the Director of Studies of a Naval Academy (filmed mainly in Brest, in Brittany). The man in question, Commanding Officer Riviere (Wilson), is a stern and distant superior who only seems interested in rigor, discipline and transparency. Ace production designer Jeremy Streliski suggests as much by placing a large window in the wall between the austere offices of Riviere and Baer, with the desks of the two actually facing each other, though at a great distance. Fillieres and editor Yves Deschamps further underline the parallels between the young woman and the middle-aged second-in-command by having them go through similar rituals when they secretly inspect each other’s desks and chair.  

In a more mainstream treatment of the material, Riviere — who is nicknamed “the Monk,” for obvious reasons — would have either been the impossibly demanding boss who is the obstacle that needs to be overcome or the love interest who makes her work impossible. But Fillieres chooses neither of these options, at least not overtly. Instead, the feature stays very much grounded in Laure’s day-to-day as she tries to do her job and commits to the various necessary physical training programs overseen by Riviere and his colleague, Albertini (Claire Denis regular Alex Descas). She also becomes fast friends with a cute Marine (Corentin Fila) training alongside her, though he presents no sexual threat because he’s gay. The same can’t quite be said for another smooth and pouty-lipped colleague (Igor Kovalsky), even though technically Laure has a cozy fur-ball of a boyfriend, Philippe (Jonathan Couzinie), at home and she does seem to become increasingly fascinated by Riviere.

(Spoiler ahead.) Indeed, one of the film’s strongest scenes sees her realize that things with Philippe have nonetheless run their course and she needs to cut the cord. Without underlining the metaphorical implications of the moment, Fillieres makes it abundantly clear that Laure is readying herself to shed her past self and step into a new and more mature version of her life.  

Purely in terms of structure, the first third of the film is all setup and the very last sequence — coolly underplayed, like every other scene — is the key needed to unlock the (often barely pronounced) undercurrents in the material that has come before it. Between those bookends, however, Raising Colors doesn’t really provide the sort of conflict usually seen in more traditional narratives, which might frustrate a part of the audience. Since there is so little backstory, active audience participation is required to decipher why Laure behaves the way that she does. A little more about especially her mother and her boss, who both radically change their minds about something without much explanation, wouldn’t have hurt. 

But the choice to forego major conflict frees Fillieres to glide through military training and a woman’s daily struggle to stand her ground in such a male environment in a way that feels more realistic and true. Tiny everyday battles are fought without them ever ballooning into fabricated-feeling and overblown histrionics. And at least part of the solution has to come from within the protagonist, as she has to overcome her own sense of what she can do, what she is worth and what she deserves.  

Though Wilson is solid as the Monk, the standout of the film is clearly Rouxel. After bit parts in pics such as the 2015 Cannes opener Standing Tall, she tackles her first lead role here with ease. In the film, the actress manages to be charismatic even when playing someone who hasn’t yet realized that she is or can be. The supporting cast, led by Being 17 breakout Fila, does good work in roles that are often less clearly drawn, with not much made, for example, of Laure's relationship with the only other significant woman on campus, a commanding officer played by Filieres herself.  

Technically, Fillieres was clearly inspired by the rigidity of the armed forces. Dumont’s windswept widescreen cinematography often uses framing and blocking that is geometric and stark, while the score by Bruno Coulais (the “Danny Elfman of France”) is unusually pared back as it nervously flits alongside the protagonist. 

Production companies: Albertine Productions, Gaumont, France 2 Cinema
Cast: Lambert Wilson, Diane Rouxel, Corentin Fila, Alex Descas, Jonathan Couzinie, Igor Kovalsky, Helene Fillieres, Josiane Balasko, Andre Marcon
Director: Helene Fillieres
Screenplay: Helene Fillieres, Mathias Gavarry
Producers: Sidonie Dumas, Matthieu Tarot
Director of photography: Eric Dumont
Production designer: Jeremy Streliski
Costume designer: Laurence Struz
Editor: Yves Deschamps 
Music: Bruno Coulais
Casting: Tatiana Vialle
Sales: Gaumont

In French, Russian
101 minutes