Four inseparable adolescent girlfriends go careening through a catalog of quasi-universal experiences in “I’m Not Afraid of Life,” an ambitious but scattered and frequently irritating coming-of-ager set in mid-to-late-’70s and early-’80s Paris. Lead quartet of actresses is excellent, and the clothes and hairdos are wonderful. But with a script that throws in everything but the kitchen sink, even full-throttle thesping can’t disguise the fact that the pic — which won France’s coveted Prix Jean Vigo, plus a Silver Leopard in Locarno — is all over the map.
Film is so abrasive the lab could strike prints on sandpaper. Episodic tale includes some resonant scenes about the cruelty rampant in high school and the anxiety of home life during one’s teens, but in co-scripting with novelist Florence Seyvos, sophomore helmer Noemie Lvovsky (“Forget Me,” 1994) made the fundamental error of assuming that a bunch of sometimes funny but mostly unbearably strident key moments strung together would somehow add up to a film.
Particularly in the first hour, nearly every scene overstays its welcome, hammering home the point established at the outset and then running it into the ground. Pic captures a smattering of details and moments of truth but can’t anchor them to a transcendent framework. Result comes off as incredibly self-indulgent and overly personal.
The four leads, all first-timers with no theatrical background, are terrific in a wide range of situations. Because the project bounced back and forth between TV and the bigscreen, in 1997 Lvovsky ended up shooting a telepic for Arte called “Petites.” Re-edited material from that makes up the first half-hour of “Life,” shot a year later. In the interim, the young thesps’ bodies and demeanors had changed, lending authenticity to the caption “Three Years Later.”
In its mission to imply that the 13-year-old protags, once grown, will never rediscover the closeness of their shared youth, pic offers only glimpses of their parents. Except for the mentally ill mom (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) and long-suffering dad (Jean-Luc Bideau) of Emilie (Magali Woch), the other parents are revealed tardily in the game. Narrative’s late-on crisis is so abrupt as to seem gratuitous, even though it apparently echoes a real-life event.
Lensing is frequently handheld and partial to tight close-ups. Fantasy sequences are a mixed bag, although a brief episode featuring sprightly animation is a highlight. Reflecting the energy and urgency of adolescence, pic is aggressive in its use of music, with classical morsels as likely to underline a sequence as sappy pop or energetic punk.