Cannes 2014: 'Party Girl' review

★★★☆☆
Cannes' Un Certain Regard strand opened this year with Marie Amachoukeli-Barsacq, Claire Burger and Samuel Theis' Party Girl (2014), a well-made if unambitious social drama which asks whether an aging, leopard skin-clad nightclub hostess can really change her spots. Sixty-year-old Angélique (played by Sonia Theis-Litzemburger) is an old-fashioned good-time girl: a hostess who loves to drink, party and entertain the menfolk in the latest of the numerous cabarets where she has earned a good living. Her faded glamour - panda eyes peering out of her face with a mixture of befuddlement and desperation - and generally exhausted demeanour all suggest a woman on the edge of decline.

There's also the gnawing doubt as to whether or not she's really earning her keep nowadays, enticing the patrons of the nightclub into any number of seedy booths to splash their cash on over-priced champagne. Angélique hangs around the bar getting excessively drunk while younger versions of herself pole and lap dance money out of the onlooking frequenters. At a loss, our heroine seeks out an old regular, Michel (Joseph Bour), in an attempt to drum up custom, but he's reluctant to return to the strip club, hankering as he does after a deeper, meaningful relationship. "We should live together, laugh together, fart together," he tells Angélique. Soon, Michel is proposing marriage and offering his love a more stable - but at the same time more constrained - way of life to what she's ever known.

Party Girl may tread familiar ground but Theis-Litzemburger is utterly convincing as the self-absorbed, beguilingly unaware lead. Her eyes express a bizarre mixture of longing dependence and dumbfounded innocence. She still simpers like a lost little girl even when addressing children, who cajole and sometimes even bully her into owning up to her responsibilities. In preparation for her wedding, Angélique contrives to put her scattered family together again, attempting to reconnect with her lost daughter, Cynthia (Cynthia Litzenburger), who is now sixteen having grown up with a foster family. However, even as the two women reunite and Angélique seems to be safely on the road to some kind of redemption, there's the danger that the titular party girl will find her new life too dull and restrictive.

Set on the France-Germany border, Party Girl transcribes an interzone of linguistic crossovers and a general confusion as to exactly where everyone belongs. Night has a way of crossing the border into morning, as the girls spill out onto the streets after the evening's entertainment has come to a close and the men have gone home. Normality is likewise porous and the surrogate family of her stripper sisterhood feels as real as (if not more real) than her cautiously optimistic biological kin. The drama never dips into all-out melodrama and there are enough moments of honest detail to ground what otherwise could have been a hackneyed morality tale. Despite getting all the breaks, Angélique herself is a fairly dislikable protagonist; a fickle, deluded and self-absorbed individual, an obviously neglectful mother and a nasty drunk.

That Angélique still retains a modicum of our sympathy is due to the openness of Theis-Litzemburger debut turn. In contrast, the role of Sam, Angélique's know-it-all son from Paris (played by actual son, co-scenarist and director Samuel Theis), feels like a meta-commentary on the superior vantage we're given over his mother by the film's docudrama-like approach. Enforcing this is the slightly too modern soundtrack which feels vastly more appropriate to the hipster son than it is to the brash house music that fills Angélique's days and nights. At times an affecting drama, Party Girl becomes all too predictable as it approaches its final closing acts. This could easily be a result of Angélique's own fatalistic inclinations, but it also feels like a function of a moralising element of the plot as a whole.

The 67th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 14-25 May 2014. For more Cannes coverage, simply follow this link.

John Bleasdale

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