Known for his challenging, low-key portraits of men in search of trouble or revenge (“Parc,” “Michael Kohlhaas”), French director Arnaud des Pallières tackles a female protagonist for the first time in “Orphan,” an intriguing, narratively fractured portrait of a young woman fighting for her freedom at various stages of her life. While puzzling at first — four actresses who don’t look alike play the same character, including Adèle Exarchopoulos (“Blue is the Warmest Color”) and Adèle Haenel (“Love at First Fight”) — “Orphan” turns out to be des Pallières’ most accessible film for general audiences, who should be seduced by his appealing cast: Gemma Arterton and Sergi López are also part of the game.
When we first meet the central character, she goes by the name of Renée, a discreet schoolteacher trying to get pregnant with her boyfriend Darius (Jalil Lespert). Her uneventful life is turned upside-down by the sudden appearance of an old acquaintance, a gorgeous and intrepid woman recently released from jail (Arterton). The ex-convict demands her “share of the loot,” which leads us to think that Renée hasn’t always been an honest civil servant and is probably wanted by the police.
Without any sort of transition, we discover a new character, an audacious teenager named Karine (Solène Rigot), who regularly runs away from home and goes from man to man (López, Olivier Loustau) to forget about a violent father (Nicolas Duvauchelle) and a gloomy adolescence in the countryside. Could she be connected to this little girl, Kiki, almost a wild child whom we see happily playing on a wasteland until her two friends suddenly disappear? But then who is the young and pretty Sandra (Exarchopoulos), who just landed in Paris to start her adult life? Fresh and reckless, she replies to an old man’s ad in the newspaper — “young girl wanted” — and thanks to him finds a job in a hippodrome where money seems to fly and temptations are everywhere.
Among France’s most fearless and ambitious directors, des Pallières builds his film like a Russian doll, daring to picture one woman and four identities in no chronological order. Viewers may be disoriented at first — but then, so is Karine-Sandra-Renée — before realizing that a patient deconstruction of the character’s past en route to understanding her original childhood trauma is actually the only way to reach the heart and soul of a woman who chose to consider herself an orphan although both of her parents are probably still alive. (A special mention to the editors — Emilie Orsini, Guillaume Lauras and the director himself — who manage to lend a sense of consistency to the film’s extremely fragmented structure.)
The film’s sometimes cruel realism arises as much from Christelle Berthevas’s partly autobiographical script as it does from “Holy Motors” DP Yves Cape’s naturalistic and unromantic cinematography. Faces are filmed so closely that the most beautiful actresses, laid bare, all become ordinary women in distress, easy to relate to, with their artificial makeup or imperfect skins. Unfortunately this stimulating quasi-documentary approach is at times weakened by flat dialogue. Still, des Pallières offers a beautifully singular insight into a dauntless woman’s mind, prepared to reinvent herself ad infinitum until she achieves absolute freedom.