Sister Welsh's Nights -- Film Review



BERLIN -- Despite what they think, teenagers, like moviegoers of all ages, want to see the same thing over and over again. "Sister Welsh's Nights" ("Les Nuits de Sister Welsh"), a French-language production, fulfills that desire in its outer, modern-day story, the familiar one of Miss Perfect vs. the Ugly Duckling.

As if to compensate, however, the inner tale, which is invented by the Ugly Duckling, Emma, the film's main character, is so incredibly complicated and baroque that few viewers of any age will be able to follow it. As such, sales possibilities seem skimpy, beyond those specialty places where movies for and about teenagers are bought and sold.
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Emma is an unhappy 16-year-old who thinks she's fat and not very pretty, an assessment that is not completely inaccurate. To complicate things, her best friend is a knockout, one of those "friends" who complain about how hard it is to be perfect, and perfectly beautiful, all the time. Emma has her eye on Fabrice, a cute classmate who is dating her friend, but she knows she hasn't a hope in the world.

Emma pours all of her frustration into an elaborate fantasy life that is so overwrought and over-the-top that an instruction sheet should be provided for the audience. Thinking it over later, one realizes there are two poles to the fantasy she develops, and both of them are related to the notion of womanhood: one, a man-hating personal trainer who brutalizes her recruits, and the other, Sister Welsh, a British woman apparently from the early nineteenth century who lives in a nunnery and is madly in love with a sailor named Captain Grant. It goes without saying that both of these women are played by Emma's mother.

The film seems almost bi-polar. On one hand, the modern story is banal and predictable, and Emma is, in fact, rather unlikeable. Her extended pity party makes it easy to see why she has such trouble attracting boys, and in an effort to make this part of the film sufficiently "realistic," the filmmakers have liberally sprinkled the dialogue with the French equivalents of words like cunt, fuck, and asshole.

On the other hand, the doubled fantasy tales are no doubt imaginative, but in a berserk, off-putting way. For one thing, director Jean-Claude Janer's inventive skills have outrun his budget, and all the sets are maximally cheesy. Furthermore, the stories are filled with annoying tics (one character in the Sister Welsh segments constantly jerks her head) and boring dialogue and situations, endlessly repeated.

Things are finally resolved when Emma, in that classic French manner, challenges Fabrice to put aside bourgeois normality and opt for the passionate and unknown. In other words, Emma.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival

Section: Generation: 14 Plus
Production Company: Arturo Mio
Cast: Anne Brochet, Louise Blachere, Laurent Delbecque
Director: Jean-Claude Janer
Screenwriter: Jean-Claud Janer
Producer: Arturo Mio, Caroline Roussel, Stephanie Roussel
Director of photography: Fabien Lamotte
Production designer: Stephane Levy
Costume designer: Marie-Laure Texier
Editor: Franck Nakache
No rating, 78 minutes