Femen activists, French lovers bask in Venice glow

Venice Film Festival

Members of Ukrainian feminist group Femen showed up to the screening of a documentary that featured a shocking revelation about their leadership. And "La jalousie", the sole French film in competition, played to an unfairly indifferent press.


Just when you thought the 70th Venice Film Festival couldn’t get more political – between an Italian comedy about unemployment, a documentary on Donald Rumsfeld, a thriller about eco-terrorists, a visual essay on Israeli-Palestinian ties and tensions, and a film about growing up gay in Morocco – along came Ukrainian feminist movement Femen to shake things up even more.

There they were at the screening of Australian filmmaker Kitty Green’s documentary “Ukraine is Not a Brothel” (shown out of competition Thursday evening): women from the group decked out in black cocktail dresses and their trademark flower wreaths, appearing to enjoy a very different spotlight than the one they’re accustomed to.

A Femen documentary with a shocking twist

The film, an absorbing, deftly constructed 78-minute look at the methods and inner workings of the group, follows various Femen members as they protest (topless, as per their signature), explain why they joined the organisation, and clash with cops, civilians and occasionally their own uncomprehending relatives.

Avoiding hagiography, Green has a refreshingly evenhanded approach, taking the time to explore some of Femen’s more flagrant contradictions. For example, she talks to a couple of the less photogenic members, who explain -- with an air of resigned understanding -- that the group’s leaders discourage them from attending protests because their body types don’t fit the sculpted mold.

As they explain, the physical allure of these mostly actress-pretty feminists is key to their strategy of attracting the world’s attention -- as well as to their overarching point that women have the right to be as sexy as they choose and still be taken seriously intellectually.

Unfortunately, the director never really delves into the intellectual backgrounds or motivations of her subjects. Indeed, Green seems a bit too willing to accept glib slogans and very brief explanations of the treatment of women as sex objects and second-class citizens in Ukrainian society.

That said, “Ukraine is Not a Brothel” delivers a riveting final-act twist by revealing the identity of the group’s head: a bullying, dogmatic man named Victor Svyatski, who admits that he may “subconsciously” have gotten involved with Femen in an attempt to bed some of the members.

The cruel paradox at the heart of the film -- the organisation that is supposed to be battling the forces of patriarchy is at least partly controlled by a patriarchal figure of its own – is certainly not lost on the women interviewed. Most outraged of all is high-ranking member Inna Shevchenko, who, in the film’s gratifying final sequence, leaves for Paris to lead the group far from Victor’s grip.

Garrel and Mouglalis shine in sole French entry

Meanwhile, the French capital -- its cafes, parks and stylish bohemian denizens -- was front and centre in France’s only entry in competition this year: Philippe Garrel’s “La jalousie” (“Jealousy”), a beautifully observed portrait of the fraying love between two needy actors and the bonds of family, which, in this warm, yet quietly despairing film, are the only ones we can truly count on.

The film stars the director’s son, Louis Garrel, as an actor (also named Louis) who leaves his wife and young daughter to move in with the beautiful, slightly stormy Claudia (Anna Mouglalis), herself an actress who hasn’t had a role in years.

Louis Garrel and Anna Mouglalis in "La jalousie" ("Jealousy").
Louis Garrel and Anna Mouglalis in "La jalousie" ("Jealousy").

What follows is in many ways a quintessentially French chamber piece, full of tortured romance, wine, books, theatre and charmingly cramped apartments.

But “Jealousy” avoids the narcissistic histrionics that plague many similar films. Director Garrel, who also co-wrote the screenplay, is exceptionally attentive to his characters’ words and behaviour, particularly those that contradict what we suspect they are feeling inside. In one painful and perceptive scene, Louis’s ex-wife (Rebecca Convenant) tries to keep a stiff upper lip as her daughter tells her how much fun Dad’s new girlfriend is.

With its elegant black-and-white images and gentle score by Jean-Louis Aubert, “Jealousy” has a pleasingly retro New Wave-y vibe; there are some wrenching developments, but the tone remains hushed and the actors navigate their characters’ waves of exuberance and despondence with low-key authenticity.

Louis Garrel can be a rather smug screen presence (he’s often a bit too conscious of his own tousle-haired charm), but here he offers a convincing portrait of steadfast love and dazed heartbreak. That Louis’s attachment to Claudia seems to be based on more than the raw physical passion we’re used to seeing in French cinema is one of the movie’s most original and refreshing touches.

Mouglalis has been acting in films for years now, but her work in “Jealousy” feels revelatory. The actress uses her husky voice to hit notes of frustration and melancholy that give the character’s evolution a sting of inevitability.

Despite its brief 77-minute running time, Garrel succeeds in pulling us fully into these people’s joys and problems, both everyday and existential. The film is small-scale, but emotionally rich.

Critics received it a bit coolly -- yet another Parisian relationship drama, they seemed to shrug -- but “Jealousy” deserves better.


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