Une Histoire Banale: Film Review

An intense account of rape and its consequences that leans towards the didactic side.

Marie Denarnaud (“Eager Bodies”) stars in this crowdfunded French drama from distaff writer-director Audrey Estrougo (“Leila”).

A DIY French drama that details the harrowing experience and aftermath of a rape, writer-director Audrey Estrougo’s Une histoire banale is -- contrary to its title -- far from a banal story, though unfortunately one that occurs all too often. Starring Marie Denarnaud (Eager Bodies, the original Blood Ties) in a fearless near-solo performance, the film does a terrific job with its low-budget aesthetic, though it has a tendency to play out like a public service announcement rather than a veritable narrative. Still, there’s no denying the force of its underlying message, which should help Histoire garner attention in Francophone territories, especially on the small screen.

Produced by Estrougo (Ain’t Scared, Leila) for €8,000 ($11,000) that was raised through crowdfunding, this Gallic movie is the rare case made outside the usual public and TV financing mechanisms, yet still released theatrically at home. And while one can hardly question the filmmaker's intentions here -- particularly her desire to raise awareness about a crime that often goes unpunished in France (usually because rape victims fail to press charges against their aggressors) -- there’s a certain didacticism that doesn’t do her film any favors, even if it offers up several strong moments thanks to an unflinching central turn.

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Taking place primarily in the apartment of 30-year-old nurse, Nathalie (Denarnaud), the story starts on a joyful note when her boyfriend, Wilson (Oumar Diaw, convincingly understated), comes back for the weekend, and the two get it on in ecstatic fashion. As Wilson works away from home, leaving Nathalie alone for two weeks, the latter does what she can to pass the time -- including going out dancing with galfriend Sohna (Marie-Sohna Conde), where she crosses fellow hospital employee, Damien (Renaud Astegiani), who’s been mildly harassing her after work.

When Damien insists on driving her home, Nathalie reluctantly accepts, though she’s clear that things will end at her doorstep. Sadly, this is not the case, and in a single-take scene captured in extreme close-up, Nathalie is attacked and raped as she enters her flat, the assailant-- whom we assume to be Damien, though we never see his face -- leaving his victim in a numbing state of fear, paranoia and self-affliction.

While the film works fairly well up to and including its pivotal sequence, things take a curious turn afterwards, with Nathalie locking herself indoors for several weeks, until she eventually transforms into a boozing nighthawk who hooks up with random men in clubs, reliving the rape in her own painful fashion. Of course, it's difficult to criticize how anyone could react to such a traumatic event, but Estrougo isolates her protagonist too much to make it all feel believable, leaving a number of unanswered questions: What about her job? Her family? Or the fact that she’s a trained medical professional who may have dealt with such cases while on the clock?

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Eschewing these issues to focus instead on the various stages of hell that Nathalie plunges through, the director keeps her camera glued to Denarnaud at all times, showing her in wavering states of ecstasy and pain, her body bearing the marks of abuse as she hits rock bottom and then some. It’s a jarring and racy performance that sometimes overreaches, though cogently portrays how rape is as much a physical crime as a psychological one, leaving Nathalie terrorized by men and wondering whether she should share in the guilt simply by being a woman.

Shot in only three weeks both in and around Estrougo’s own apartment, the film greatly benefits from the sharp skills of Oscar-nominated DP Guillaume Schiffman (The Artist, Populaire), who starts off with a colorful lighting scheme that gradually shifts to the dark side as Nathalie’s world turns upside-down.

Clever music choices help add texture to the one-way storyline, particularly an opening folksy cover of NTM’s ultra-macho dance track “Ma Benz,” and a scene where Wilson and Nathalie lip sync to French rapper Menelik’s duet “Bye Bye”  -- providing a playful take on the movie’s otherwise harsh depiction of male-female relations.

Production companies: Six Onze Films, Les Canards Sauvages

Cast: Marie Denarnaud, Marie-Sohna Conde, Oumar Diaw, Renaud Astegiani

Director, screenwriter: Audrey Estrougo

Producers: Lauren Grall, Audrey Estrougo

Directors of photography: Guillaume Schiffman

Editor: Celine Cloarec

Music: James “BKS” Edjouma

Sales agent: Six Onze Films

No rating, 83 minutes