Directors: Emmanuel Marre, Julie Lecoustre
Stars: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Mara Taquin, Alexandre Perrier
With something approaching nostalgia I was moved to remember a time when reality TV wasn’t sensationalised, overtly staged or aggressively oversexed.
Yes, that’s right, the 1990s.
Here in the UK, at least, reality TV started out exceedingly humdrum. Shows about decorating each others’ houses, or what driving lessons are like. Our first reality TV stars were extremely ordinary members of the general public. Maureen Rees, or Jeremy Spake from BBC’s Airport. This last show particularly came to mind when watching Emmanuel Marre and Julie Lecoustre’s spikily titled Zero Fucks Given, a peek behind the pleated curtain of a prestigious airline’s galley.
Presented in straight-faced quasi-mockumentary style (albeit without the anticipated asides to camera), the film follows the day-to-day of 26-year-old Cassandra (Exarchopoulos). For fictional airline Wing she performs tasks perceived as glamorous, but which differ little from the functional roles of a cinema usher; checking passes and cleaning up after people. ZFG peels away the façade of luxury, documenting a transient lifestyle of boredom and hook-up culture. “Where are we going?” Cassandra pointedly asks a colleague, contrasting their lives with those of their jet-setting customers. It’s a moment that succinctly – bluntly – articulates the question posed by much of the remainder.
On her downtime Cassandra goes clubbing (a scene of her singing along to Gala’s “Free From Desire” furthered my own sense of spiritual connection to the ’90s), does drugs, lounges in anonymous hotel rooms taking naked selfies to send to whoever she’s matched with on dating apps. Her brief interactions with these men seem empty yet sadly indicative of a work/life imbalance that prevents significant connection. Not that Cassandra wants such a thing (a drug-fuelled declaration of love from a colleague ruins her own state of euphoria one night). Yet she yearns for something more from her life. Like many of us she struggles to decide what this ought to be.
The stylistic choice to ape documentary might’ve worked better if Marre and Lecoustre hadn’t cast an exceedingly recognisable actor in their lead role. As it is their own façade of authenticity is burst whenever Exarchopoulos is on screen. Which is virtually all of the time. The handheld craning and tilting of the camera – frequently keen to be part of a scene – favours inelegance. Or else scenes are presented in wide, from static points. Performances are kept at a decidedly muted register. In many respects their film successfully conjures a sense of the humdrum. Their (very capable) star works against these impulses.
Still, accepting Exarchopoulos’ presence, ZFG stubbornly refuses to pander to the sensationalism one finds in modern day reality TV. On the one hand this is admirable. It skirts a sense of manipulative trash that such programming luxuriates in. On the other, Marre and Lecoustre push so far in the other direction that their trivialities remain decidedly banal. ZFG may successfully ape real life, but it presents very little beyond an aloof millennial who is disengaged from her day job. Hardly revelatory. And, at nearly two hours, the dearth of material becomes unfortunately conspicuous.
There are exceptions. The abject objectification, for instance, of a job interview conducted over Zoom that starts playing like an audition of a different kind. Or a sequence in which members of the cabin crew go through “smile training” that is particularly revealing about our culture of service and it’s entwinement with emotional suppression. See also Cassandra’s particularly human interactions with customers and colleagues alike, which frequently land her in trouble with her superiors, reflecting the often callous nature of corporate politics.
For all Cassandra’s seeming detachment, she’s still a little too reactive for Wing Airlines’ meticulous standards. These are the moments that tessellate with our own experiences outside of ZFG‘s hermetic world, offering the most food for thought. But, even so, the morsels are small, and this flight to nowhere could’ve used a little more turbulence to at least make it memorable.