Tuesday, July 07, 2009

La Fille de l'Air

In a quirky and quinessentially European take on the old boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl-boy-gets-girl-back scenario, heavily pregnant Brigitte (Beatrice Dalle) has her home violently invaded by armed police looking for her partner Daniel (Thierry Fortineau) who is out providing for his family by robbing a supermarket, and both are locked up (in a heart-warming scene they get married whilst under lock and key). While Brigitte is released soon after having her baby, she is distraught to find that Daniel, who's escaped from prison four times in the past, has to serve all his sentences (because of the escapes his sentences cannot now run concurrently) and is therefore looking at 36 years behind bars. Not too keen on waiting that long for the honeymoon, Brigitte settles on an innovative way of getting him out - a hair-raising scheme involving a helicopter, a fishing rod and a toy gun.

If all this makes 'La Fille de l'Air' sound vaguely ridiculous, that's only because it's disturbingly easy to imagine the story as a high concept Hollywood movie. A comedy, in all probability. You can imagine the pitch: "It's 'Airwolf' meets 'The Longest Yard'. It's 'When Sally Sprung Harry'!" You can imagine the poster: Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn half-glowering-half-grinning at each other with a silhouetted chopper hovering over a PG-friendly prison. The tagline: "When they're not breaking up ... they're breaking out!"

Which is why it's worth offering a silent prayer to whatever higher powers may be that Hollywood didn't get their hands on the story and Lebanese filmmaker Maroun Bagdadi (director of the award-winning 'Hors la Vie'), working from an intelligent, sensitively crafted and non-sensationalist screenplay by Florence Quentin, brought it to the screen instead. A dramatisation of Nadine Vaujour's autobiographical book (yes, 'La Fille de l'Air' is a film based on a true story that's so crazy it sounds like something out of a film), its writer, director and cast deserve kudos for not letting rip with the visual, dramatic or stylistic excesses that could so easily have squandered the human angle of the project and mired it in crowd-pleasing/hi-jinks vacuity.

Having said that, an early sequence teases audience sensibilities with the promise of Luc Besson/John Woo style action as an armed police unit come crashing through the windows and skylight of Brigitte's house. The door is kicked down for good measure and the whole place torn apart. Furniture is smashed, knives hack into sofa coverings, a goldfish bowl and its occupant are swept callously from a table to shatter on the floor. It's about a minute's worth of kinetically edited heavy-handedness that makes 'The Sweeney' look like the Salvation Army and leaves you feeling like a tornado just swept across the screen.

An hour and a half later, Bagdadi stages a just-as-tense ten-minute set-piece detailing Brigitte's air-traffic-control-defying mission to rescue Daniel - and it's a damn fine piece of action cinema. But the real drama is encapsulated in what happens inbetween. The immediate aftermath of the police raid and the arrests is depicted from Brigitte's perspective. She deals with incarceration, has her child as a prisoner, finds solidarity with some of the other inmates; she's released and tries to facilitate a reprieve for Daniel through proper channels; her efforts are stonewalled; she learns that he'll be inside for 36 years. Things get worse. In setting her up with a criminal fraternity who might be able to help her spring Daniel by less bureaucratic methods, her brother Philippe gets involved in a robbery that goes wrong. The first Brigitte hears of it is when she gets news of his death. Likewise Daniel's "cousin from Orleans": he has a plan, he just needs to do one job in order to raise the funds. Brigitte, trying hold down a straight job, picks up a paper at work - his face is plastered over the front page; he's been killed in a shoot-out - and has to hold it painfully together as she realises another hope has been dashed.

Or maybe not. Hastily clearing out the apartment she set Daniel's cousin up with, she comes across details of the plan he was hatching. A plan that calls for a helicopter, a fishing rod and - at Brigitte's insistence; she wants no truck with actual firearms - a replica gun. Which is where we came in.

In focussing on Brigitte's relationships with her family - her world-weary, slightly disapproving mother and her achingly innocent daughter represent the other points of the familial compass - and juxtaposing her grim determination with moments of absolute despair (there's a standout scene where she berates the helpless Daniel for Philippe's death), Bagdadi foregrounds character and motivation. The big finale, when it comes, is all the more tense as a result. He is also well served by a good cast, Dalle in particular casting off the voluptuous bombshell image that christened a thousand posters courtesy of 'Betty Blue' and proving herself a very capable character actor.

Tragically, 'La Fille de l'Air' was Bagdadi's last film; he died a year after its release, in 1993. The exact circumstances surrounding the manner of his death - a fall down an elevator shaft - remain unexplained. He was 43.


Hans A. said...

This film sounds like something right up my alley. I'll be eagerly looking for a copy after commenting. Great review, again, Neil. It's reviews like this why I really enjoy reading your blog.

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks, Hans. Hope you enjoy the film. Something I forgot to mention in the review is how claustrophobically Bagdadi films most of the mid-section; even after Brigitte is released from captivity, she's hemmed in - by family, by duty, by the legal system. When she finally pilots the helicopter solo, the sense of exhilaration is palpable.