'Trainee Day' ('Maman a tort'): Film Review

Trainee Day  Still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Avenue B/Unifrance
A beautifully written and played mother-daughter dramedy.

Emilie Dequenne ('Rosetta') and Jeanne Jestin ('The Past') play mother and daughter in Marc Fitoussi's work-placement dramedy and coming-of-age tale.

A 14-year-old French girl isn’t exactly enthusiastic when she’s assigned a one-week work placement at the insurance company where her mother’s a mid-level employee in the cleverly titled French dramedy Trainee Day (Maman a tort). After the nuanced and warmly funny Copacabana, a Cannes Critics Week title that starred Isabelle Huppert and her real-life offspring Lolita Chammah as a mother-daughter pairing, director Marc Fitoussi delivers another fascinating mother-daughter portrait here that explores female family dynamics against the backdrop of soul-crushing office work. Though a tad long and meandering, this is yet another solid entry into Fitoussi’s filmography that explores the lives of credible characters in contemporary society with a sense of humanism and bittersweet comedie humaine.

Belgian actress Emilie Dequenne (Rosetta, Our Children) and impressive child actor Jeanne Jestin (Farhadi’s The Past) headline the film and while they make for a fantastic pairing, they don’t have the star power of some of Fitoussi’s previous features. Combined with the fact that it’s not entirely clear what the target audience is for a film told from the perspective of a 14-year-old but about some very adult themes, returns will more likely be decent rather than stellar for this local Nov. 9 release.

The French expression “metro-boulot-dodo,” which can be translated literally as “subway-work-sleep,” suggests the awfully repetitive nature of mind-numbing office work and an absence of time for anything resembling a personal life. It also describes the routine of Cyrielle (Dequenne), who works at a large company where she has to deal with insurance claims, though the single mom and self-made woman does find time to snuggle with her cute teenage daughter, Anouk (Jestin), in bed at night while watching TV and sharing copious quantities of the coldest of all compensatory culinary items: ice cream.

When Anouk’s father (Gregoire Ludig) tells her that his cool plan for her one-week work placement for school at a TV station has fallen through at the last minute, it’s up to Mom to come up with a solution. The easiest and fastest one is to take her to her own office, though Anouk is placed in a different division where she’s looked after by a duo of passive-aggressive women (Nelly Antignac, Camille Chamoux) who task her with reorganizing a storeroom and archive space.  

The early setup of the film, also written by Fitoussi, is pretty straightforward and wrings some gentle humor from both the friction between Cyrielle and her ex-husband and from the workers at the firm, with some treating Anouk like a baby while others treat her like a slave. By staying close to Anouk’s point of view throughout, the director also manages to highlight some of the absurdities of the professional sphere, where certain adult behavior, which would be unacceptable in private, seems to be the norm. How Cyrielle deals with her colleagues and especially her patronizing superior (Jean-Francois Cayrey) is well-observed and finely drawn, with Cyrielle wanting to be an example for her daughter but not immune to being caught in some of the less savory contemporary workplace dynamics.

The stakes are raised even further when a young widow (Sabrina Ouazani) with two small children is introduced. The insurance company that Cyrielle works for has refused to pay her after her husband’s death, which means she’ll be forced out of her home. With the film set in the dark and cold days before Christmas, this thought shocks Anouk, who wants to help the young mother any way a naive and idealistic 14-year-old can. Like her mother’s complex balancing act between her duties and place in the hierarchy on the one hand and her sense of pride and dignity on the other, this subplot is handled adroitly and insightfully while retaining a sobering sense of reality — though Anouk might be more intrepid than most of her real-life peers, the film never resorts to this-only-happens-in-the-movies wish fulfillment. Indeed, things become rather dark in the film’s closing reels, where Fitoussi manages to tread delicately as Cyrielle is suddenly seen in a new light.

The film is full of wonderfully observed details about how professional and private needs frequently clash, like in a shot of a cleaner at the office whose two small children he’s brought to work because he obviously has no other place to take them. Anouk’s growing interest in a gawky kid (Joshua Maze) who’s doing his work placement in the company’s mailroom is also nicely underplayed, preferring realism over cliches at every turn. That said, there are moments, such as the ones involving the company receptionist, that feel like unnecessary padding while others, including the lead’s relationship with a girlfriend (Louvia Bachelier) who lives in the same building, feel a tad underdeveloped and convenient. 

Dequenne, the Dardenne brothers discovery who gave the performance of lifetime in Joachim Lafosse’s Our Children as a mother driven to killing her own children, impresses here as a mother who has sacrificed everything to make sure her daughter has more than she had but who might have lost more than a part of herself in the process. Her work in especially the last act is again thrilling to behold. Opposite her, the curly-haired cutie Jestin easily holds her own, with the young pro bringing wide-eyed innocence when required but also credible as someone who takes matters into her own hands when she thinks the end justifies the means.  

As for all of his films, Fitoussi brings a high level of technical polish to the material, with especially Marite Coutard’s costumes a standout. Like her personality, Anouk’s impressively colored-coordinated outfits bring something bold and bright to the otherwise rather sober office settings. They also help suggest how 14 is a complex age between child- and adulthood, with the colors perhaps more child-like but the patterns and cuts often inspired by clothes typically worn by adults. The atmospheric and effective score contains only pre-existing music, including from Alberto Iglesias’s score for The Two Faces of January.

Production companies: Avenue B Productions, Versus Production, SND
Cast: Jeanne Jestin, Emilie Dequenne, Nelly Antignac, Camille Chamoux, Annie Gregorio, Sabrina Ouazani, Jean-François Cayrey, Gregoire Ludig, Louvia Bachelier, Joshua Mazé
Writer-Director: Marc Fitoussi
Producer: Caroline Bonmarchand
Executive producers: Jacques-Henri Bronckart, Olivier Bronckart
Director of photography: Laurent Brunet
Production designer: Françoise Dupertuis
Costume designer: Marité Coutard
Editor: Damien Keyeux
Casting: Dorothee Chesnot
Sales: Kinology

In French
110 minutes