October 04, 2008

Les Femmes de l'Ombre best kept in the shadows

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Female Agents is the story of four Frenchwomen on a secret mission in France to stop D-Day plans from being revealed. The bad guy is an SS officer called Heindrich who is always one step ahead of the SOE and the heroes are Louise (Marceau) and her brother Pierre, heading a motley crew of girls: Jeanne the prostitute who killed her pimp (Depardieu), Suzy the Follies Bergeres dancer and ex of Heindrich (Gillain), and Gaelle the Christian goody-two shoes (Francois). They are later joined by an Italian Jewish countess Maria (Sansa). Their first mission is successful but their second attempt is disastrous: through a string of blunders, confessions and the cunning of Heindrich, almost all the major characters find death (and themselves).

The script is not bad per se, in its favour there is little Hollywoodian heroism. The girls are at turns cowardly, treacherous, or downright stupid and their reasons for taking part in the mission are far from glorious: Jeanne escapes a hanging thanks to it, Suzy escapes blackmail. One can’t help wonder however what exactly the film was trying to achieve. The title leaves little doubt that its aim was to highlight women’s part in the war, yet these women are hardly the typical fare. Unlike the majority of spies sent to France, these women receive little to no training. Yet the weight of the D-day landing is allowed to rest on their shoulders: and what a mess they make of it! Pious Gaelle reveals all after a single nail is plucked, Suzy threatens the success of several operations with her sentimentalism and inability to fire a gun, Jeanne tries to escape a few times with the cash. Only Louise comes out favourably, but as Jeanne says, she’s barely human. The film is to be praised for not idolizing its central characters, yet the simplistic depiction of men as largely fearless and clever, and women as flawed is unsettling.

The film crucially fails to create a sense of real relationships between these characters. Julie Depardieu, as Jeanne is the exception rather than the rule: she alone manages to create a likeable, vibrant character out of the threadbare script, in her presence the other characters gain a bit of colour. On the other hand, there is no sense of sibling friendship or love between Louise and Pierre which makes the ploy to torture Louise to make him speak preposterous. One can't help but feel a sprinkling of humour would have helped us swallow the ridiculously beautiful smoke-fumed settings, but then, you know, the war is serious and shit, yeah?

Female Agents throws characters at the screen as quickly as it discards them. Characters such as Maria are introduced only to be killed moments later. Perhaps this is an attempt to capture the restlessness of the times but ultimately it just makes it difficult to care about the outcome.

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