Director: Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet
Stars: Anaïs Demoustier, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, Denis Podalydès
It’s been a banner twelve months for free-spirited young women running in movies; a trend so common at present you’d expect some bright spark to commit to a YouTube supercut. From Julie in a standout sequence in The Worst Person in the World, to Alana running alongside Gary in Licorice Pizza, to Kristen Stewart’s fantasy emancipation of Princess Diana in Spencer. Leading ladies are literally leading the charge. Add to that list Anaïs Demoustier, whose forever-late titular heroine dashes through love’s trials and tribulations in Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet’s effervescent Anaïs in Love.
We’re in, it seems, deeply familiar territory with Anaïs. It’s France, and summer. She’s young, disorganised, behind on her rent, breezing through life. A staple, even cliché of a certain type of modern indie picture that focuses on a young woman supposedly ‘finding herself’ (this is exactly what The Worst Person in the World was doing with – in fairness – great success). One might even dismiss her characterisation and portrayal as adhering to the ‘manic pixie dream-girl’ trope… a fantasy of young womanhood as a desirable object historically from and for the gaze of men.
Bourgeois-Tacquet, however, tackles these same quirks and foibles from a woman’s perspective and, chiefly, for the sapphic pleasures of women, slyly and satisfyingly turning the French ‘summer fling’ movie into something a little different, while still honouring it’s Rohmerian traditions.
When we meet Anaïs she has a boyfriend, fleetingly, whom she loses thanks to her cavalier attitude toward abortion (the modern casualness of Anaïs in Love throws Audrey Diwan’s recent masterwork Happening into sharp relief). She then indulges in an affair with a much older man, Daniel (Denis PodalydèsI), a publisher whom she meets following a chance encounter (typically, she’s running late for something).
So far so hetero-normative. It’s not until the second act of the picture that Anaïs meets Daniel’s oblivious wife; successful author Émilie (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi). Having already broken things off with Daniel, Anaïs feels an immediate attraction to the middle-aged woman, and derails much of her own life in order to abscond to a writer’s retreat to spend more time in her company.
Bourgeois-Tacquet’s interest in remixing the traditions of the French rom-com are evident in her depictions of sex. When Anaïs is with men, sex is shown as brief, awkward or robotic in nature. A functional act or even a transaction of a kind. Once Anaïs has managed to seduce Emilie, however, the observation is weighted very differently. A beach tryst is cut together with salty sensuality. The rhythm is heady and lilting and it seems as though the two women are discovering things in a collection of breathlessly caught moments. The intimacy is unrivaled elsewhere in the picture.
Anaïs herself may be in love, but one feels that this filmmaker is in love with Anaïs. Her befreckled and sundressed protagonist is absolved of any sin or act of inconsideration thanks to her youth and beauty; something remarked upon by several of the orbiting characters. There’s something to be said for this film as a love letter to these qualities, an almost nostalgic rapture at the sense of charm, immortality and immediacy that comes with the blessings of youth and privilege. Anaïs breezes through life – even through problems – with an unacknowledged indestructibility. But we sense Bourgeois-Tacquet’s awareness of it, even if her character is blithely unknowing.
The chaotic spirit of Anaïs impacts the world around her. Early scenes bring to mind the scatological unpredictability of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, in which even inanimate objects seem caught up in the fretful whirlwind of the lead character’s emotions. Witness here the erratic behaviour of a smoke alarm. While Anaïs’ impulsive response to the events of her life are mirrored into the near-frantic pacing of the picture.
There’s a persistent feeling of forward momentum in both the camerawork and editing rhythms that feels exceedingly reminiscent of Mia Hansen-Løve at her most propulsive (think the energy that moves the likes of The Father of my Children or Goodbye, First Love forever forward). Elsewhere, emotion and visual framework are often caught in simpatico. On a clifftop walk together, Anaïs and Émilie frankly discuss mortality. As they do so, Bourgeois-Tacquet has her women framed with vertiginous intensity, as though they might tip off of the world at any moment. The angle matches and enhances the subject.
There’s something to be said, too, for Bourgeois-Tacquet’s effortless allowance for a middle-aged woman to be sexy and desirous, both for herself and from the perspective of a younger woman. Roles like Émilie aren’t too frequent in the offering, and Bruni-Tedeschi climbs into the part like a second skin. Where Emma Thompson’s uptight iteration in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande felt earnestly aware of itself, Anaïs in Love surpasses it by playing such qualities as unremarkable. In the modern cinematic landscape that’s surprisingly precious.
Still, it is Demoustier who (aptly) runs away with the picture. Her Anaïs is reminiscent of the aforementioned Julie from The Worst Person in the World, albeit less inclined toward introspection. Rather she feels like an impulsive feminine fantasy conjured from the mind of Bourgeois-Tacquet and bottled in Demoustier’s uninhibited performance. Between the two of them, it makes for quite the captivating creation, so much so that the irks of the tropes Anaïs adheres to become easily if not readily forgivable.
But she is not, it turns out, immortal. The film’s emotive crescendo reveals this to be the case. It’s a beautiful, understated scene between Demoustier and Bruni-Tedeschi; one that cements Anaïs in Love as something a little more significant than the summer fling it suggests it’s going to be. Meanwhile, the final scene wordlessly wrings an emotionally resonant beat out of something that, earlier, seemed merely charming and inconsequential.
The summer may nearly be over, but you owe yourself one last romantic dalliance. Make it this one.