'In Safe Hands' ('Pupille'): Film Review

Sensitive and a bit too sweet.

French writer-director Jeanne Herry’s adoption drama stars Sandrine Kiberlain, Gilles Lellouche and Elodie Bouchez.

The delicate and emotionally precarious path of a newborn put up for adoption is the subject of writer-director Jeanne Herry’s second feature, In Safe Hands (Pupille), which follows several adults and one bright-eyed baby boy from his birth to the moment he finally lands a home.

Intelligently observed and backed by a strong cast, this well-performed ensemble piece oscillates between documentary-style study of the French social care system and Lifetime-style tearjerker that tends to overdose on the saccharine. Released by StudioCanal to strong reviews, the film could find a decent local audience over the holiday season, with possibilities for limited theatrical in Francophonia and beyond.

Hopping from one character to another, with an infant providing the narrative throughline, Herry’s script digs deep into the legal and psychological particulars of France’s anonymous adoption system (called “l’accouchement sous X”), where mothers who wish to give away their newborns can do so without identifying themselves.

Doctors, nurses, social workers, psychiatrists and potential parents all come into play as we follow the child — who’s temporarily named Theo — over a three-month period, during which he first lands in the very safe hands of a burly assistant social named Jean (Gilles Lellouche). Other helpers include Theo’s concerned caseworker Karine (Sandrine Kiberlain); another caseworker, Lydie (Olivia Cote), who’s been tasked to find him a family; and a third one, Mathilde (Clothilde Mollet), who handled Theo’s transfer from his 21-year-old birth mother (Leila Muse) to the French social system.

Herry clearly did her research here, and there are many scenes that border on non-fiction as we sit in on discussions between caregivers trying to decide what’s best for the “pupil,” which is how such children are referred to by the state (the French term “pupille” is the pic’s original title). Most intriguing is the way in which the infant’s psychology comes into play, with several sequences showing how vital it is to explain Theo’s situation to him, even if he’s unable to communicate his thoughts.

Less convincing are the more dramatized sequences between adults, including the private lives of Jean and Karine, who may have a thing for each other, and the backstory of an adoptive parent named Alice (Elodie Bouchez), who turns out to be the best candidate to bring Theo into her home. The performances are good, with Kiberlain providing a bit of comic relief and Lellouche showing his sensitive side, but their character arcs prove to be less interesting than Theo’s realistic journey into Alice’s arms.

In her promising debut Number One Fan (Elle l’adore), Herry focused on a woman’s obsession with a famous rocker, revealing the co-dependency that develops between two complete strangers. Here she shows how the “sous X” system links a handful of disparate characters together, sometimes passionately so, in the service of one child’s future, with a script that craftily jumps around to provide a group portrait in intimate terms.

But while Number One Fan maintained a clever and often darkly comic tone, In Safe Hands tends to be overtly sweet in places, especially during a denouement that neatly ties every loose end up while giving audiences the supreme happy ending they hoped for. The director also inserts enough close-ups of the uber-cute Theo to fill several Huggies commercials, even if such shots underscore the baby’s wavering emotional states.

Tech credits are highlighted by Sofian El Fani’s warm widescreen lensing, which often isolates the characters against soft monochrome backgrounds, and a spare score by Pascal Sangla that avoids becoming too treacly, at least until the final act.

Production companies: Tresor Films, Chi-Fou-Mi Productions
Cast: Sandrine Kiberlain, Gilles Lellouche, Elodie Bouchez, Olivia Cote, Clotilde Mollet, Miou-Miou, Leila Muse
Director-screenwriter: Jeanne Herry
Producer: Vincent Mazel
Director of photography: Sofian El Fani
Production designer: Johann George
Costume designer: Marie Le Garrec
Editor: Francis Vesin
Composer: Pascal Sangla
Sales: StudioCanal

In French
107 minutes