Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Jean-Paul Civeyrac's MY FRIEND VICTORIA offers class, race, friendship and love as we've seldom experienced them, movie-wise

A highly unusual film experience -- quiet, thoughtful, probing and emotional while not indulging us in a single melodramatic moment, MY FRIEND VICTORIA, adapted by screenwriter/director Jean-Paul Civeyrac from a story by Doris Lessing, takes us on the journey to adulthood and motherhood of a young black girl in France as she struggles to find her place in society and the world around her. The beauty, the gift of this extraordinary movie is that it allows us to inhabit its characters so well that we experience and understand things from all their viewpoints.

Filmmaker Civeyrac, shown at right, makes the relatively unusual choice of having much of his film narrated, but quite in the French style (it reminded me very much of Georges Franju's Thomas l'imposteur). This narration -- spoken by Fanny, the very good friend and almost-sister of our heroine, Victoria -- enables us to experience the latter's story sympathetically and with empathy, without the usual sentimentality clouding our vision. And the measured, lovely tone of Fanny's voice seems both intelligent and reassuring. It also elides some of the moments that, had they been shown, would have thrown the movie more toward the sentimental.

Instead, we experience Victoria's life from both a first-hand, visual sense, and almost simultaneously via the more distancing narration. This combination works wonderfully in holding our attention, while forcing us to better consider what we are seeing -- which begins with one of those odd-but-life-altering experiences a child can have that may seem unremarkable to the adults and older children around her but that somehow changes everything for the child (played quite beautifully and soulfully by newcomer Keylia Achie Beguie, above, left).

This experience, conveyed so that we take it in through the child's eyes, mind and heart, is a game-changer that she and we come back to again and again throughout the movie -- but not visually or physically. Instead, it has been expressed so thoroughly that it remains a constant with Victoria, and with us. M. Civeyrac is very good with the details, too, both visual and verbal, objects and ideas. As the film unfurls, we become aware of how childhood seeps into our adulthood, how what we did then stays with us, reflected in our later actions.

Victoria's experience of spending even that single afternoon, night and morning in the home of a well-to-do white family changes everything for the child. And what this movie makes us understand is how one's self-image becomes so much a part of the larger issues of race and class, sometimes to the point of hindering our own progress. Or maybe not. What seems like hindrance may actually be a kind of growth.

That the movie can address all this without ever lecturing or hectoring is among its great strengths. It allows us to ponder, in ways that most films don't come near, even as we're watching, hoping and struggling to understand our protagonist's stance.

My Friend Victoria also treats its white bourgeoisie characters with understanding and compassion. And in the cast are two stalwarts of French cinema:Catherine Mouchet (above, second from right) and Pascal Greggory (above, left), as the parents of the two sons who have such an effect on Victoria, as child and adult. The adult Victoria is played by a stunningly beautiful actress, Guslagie Mulanga (above, and below, right). in her film debut, and an equally effective actress, Nadia Moussa (below, left), also making her acting debut, as Fanny.

This movie is so unlike most of what opens these days, even on the foreign film/arthouse circuit, that I hesitate to praise it too highly. Best to say that, if you're an aware, open and sensate person, you will not leave the theater as quite the same person who entered it. From Zeitgeist Films, and running a mere 95 minutes, the movie opens in New York City exclusively at the IFC Center this Friday, December 4, and will hit several other cities in the weeks to come. Click here and scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

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