When a certain school of social realism is dutifully imitated, what degree of authenticity remains? That’s a question prompted by Laurent Lariviere’s diverting but derivative debut feature, “I Am a Soldier,” a well-acted, well-mounted but indistinctly textured study in working-class female ennui. Seemingly in thrall to the work of Belgium’s Dardenne brothers, yet with an individual socioeconomic geography that never quite comes into focus, this tale of a disenfranchised young woman who falls into the dog-trafficking racket — with inevitably harsh consequences — works most admirably as a grimy change of pace for French star Louise Bourgoin. Thriller and romantic-comedy leanings, however, ultimately chip away at the believability of this Un Certain Regard entry; commercially, “Soldier” is unlikely to see much action on foreign soil.
The grinding social impact of latter-day European austerity measures is oppressively felt in “I Am a Soldier,” even if Lariviere’s screenplay never specifically explains what circumstances have brought 30-year-old Sandrine (Bourgoin) to rock bottom. The film begins with her vacating an apartment, all but begging the property agent for the return of her security deposit; her job, whatever it may have been, has also recently slipped through her fingers. Sandrine has no option, then, but to pack her few belongings and return to her hometown of Roubaix — a modest, unemployment-scarred commune near the Belgian border, as if the Dardennes comparisons needed further encouragement. She falls on the mercy on her scrappy single mother (cast standout Anne Benoit), who welcomes her with wearily open arms, even as it’s clear Sandrine isn’t alone in feeling the poverty pinch.
Obtusely scuppering her own chances at a retail position, Sandrine instead takes a menial job at a shady kennel run by her uncle, Henri (Jean-Hugues Anglade), where standards of care would give any PETA representative heart palpitations. A puppy mill specializing in unhealthily bred pooches from Eastern Europe, reared on the cheap and sold for substantial profit, it seems a particularly unsuitable place of employment for a young woman as capable and personable as Sandrine, though she diligently throws herself into the work. Before long, she’s in on the illegal doggy dealings herself, though she maintains ethical reservations about Henri’s business that never quite flare up into full-blown dramatic conflict.
Sandrine’s resigned inactivity is no accidental lapse of characterization; in her shrugging complicity with corruption, she represents legions of working-class European citizens forced into self-damaging compromises to get by in the current economic climate. “I Am a Soldier” doesn’t want for empathy in this regard, but its heroine’s conundrum isn’t wholly credible, either. The audience is party to so few details of her personal and psychological history, while her financial misfortunes are presented in such generalized terms, that her unhappy compliance with Henri (himself a fairly two-dimensional wastrel, though given a certain scuzzy dignity by Anglade) seems more a narrative convenience than anything else. As if aware that its social realism isn’t quite tough enough to pass muster, the pic makes a cute but unconvincing lurch in its latter stages into romantic territory, as an unlikely attraction sparks between Sandrine and woebegone vet Pierre (Laurent Capelluto).
With her fine features scrubbed of makeup and framed by a cropped, no-nonsense hairdo, Bourgoin cuts a very different figure here from the winsome ingenue of Luc Besson’s “The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec.” Still, her intelligent, measured performance registers as more than a superficial deglam job, conveying a sense of slackened internal disappointment that silently suggests more than the script does about Sandrine’s recent misfortunes. She has an especially acute scene partner in the wonderful Benoit, who projects weathered motherly concern alongside a titanium-hard streak of self-preservation.
The misleading title — alluding, perhaps ironically, to its protag’s wavering degree of inner fight — stems from a French-language Johnny Hallyday cover of the mournful Bobby Vinton ballad “Mr. Lonely,” used to touching diegetic effect in one scene and returning at other points as an amplified emotive refrain. Tech credits are proficient across the board, though David Chizallet’s tastefully overcast lensing lacks the refined dynamism of his work on two other Cannes titles this year, “The Anarchists” and “Mustang.”