Jean-Michel Carre’s “Women in Perpetual Hell” is an emotionally devastating, keenly assembled docu that follows seven inmates of France’s Fleury-Merogis women’s prison, the world’s largest, during two years. A must for festivals and issue-oriented TV, pic deserves a long international career as a model of insightful, non-judgmental filmmaking and a capsule education in penal (and societal) failures.
Film portrays the reality of the subjects’ lives with sober grace and unforced dignity. Each articulate, self-aware prisoner comes across as a complex “character” that most novelists would kill to have created.
At the same time, pic’s a stunning indictment of the pointless cycle of imprisoning women for relatively minor offenses while failing to address the underlying problems that lead to criminal behavior.
Per film, 60% of the prison population uses hard drugs and nearly half are HIV-positive. The women, who range in age from barely 20 to mid-30s, reveal childhoods littered with incest, rape and suicide.
What makes the film doubly searing is that the camera also follows the women’s fortunes when confronted with the challenge of rebuilding their lives after doing time. Lensing and editing are consistently fine: Within the prison, static framing accentuates the women’s confinement; outside, free-wheeling tracking shots emphasize their range of movement.
At one point, the film cuts from an AIDS-afflicted prostitute, who says her only regret is not having a child, to another inmate whose infant daughter is brought to visit her. The mother, HIV-positive, says she’ll kill herself before her strength and beauty decline, but is seen hollow and failing two years later.
In situations like the prostitute’s running into brick walls when trying to secure lodging on release, it is the case workers and assorted do-gooders who come across as deluded.
Given that the docu has nothing positive to say about France’s penal system — except that it sometimes saves heroin addicts from death thanks to forced withdrawal — it is remarkable the authorities cooperated in the filming.
Final news that four of the seven women are now dead comes like a body blow after sharing their sad lives. Pic is dedicated to their memory.