A strange and affecting tale of self-actualization in an unlikely environment, “Stand-By” features a terrific lead perf from Dominique Blanc as a woman who refuses to leave an airport when her husband ditches her just before their flight out. Protracted but intense character study, shot and edited with confidence, marks a promising bigscreen debut for scripter-helmer Roch Stephanik.
After five years of marriage, Gerard (Patrick Catalifo) and Helene (Blanc) are at Orly South terminal, about to check in for the flight that will take them to a new life in Buenos Aires. Deciding at the last minute he needs to be alone to think straight, Gerard makes a clean break, informing his astonished wife it’s over between them.
Gerard takes the plane; mousy, adoring Helene takes a nearly fatal blow to her self-esteem. Gerard assumes Helene will return to town, stay with her sister, get a job and land on her feet. However, first out of grief and confusion, and eventually out of a burgeoning sense of resolve, Helene opts for life at the airport.
She has two suitcases full of clothes and toiletries, and the airport has showers and restaurants. When her cash runs out, Helene parlays an odd proposition from an elderly physician (Gamil Ratib) into a new profession: She becomes a prostitute.
At first tentative, then increasingly assured, Helene makes friends with airport staffers, including a stewardess on the Paris-Buenos Aires route who aids Helene’s charade by posting letters from Argentina to her family in France. Most supportive is Marco (Roschdy Zem), the counter man at the cafe who witnessed Helene’s disarray when her husband left her.
The considerably more comic “Tombes du ciel” (1993), by Philippe Lioret, was a bittersweet gem set entirely at Paris’ giant Roissy airport, where a passport-less Jean Rochefort mingled with a poignant community in the same administrative no-man’s-land.
In “Stand-By,” Helene is free to leave any time, but she chooses to stay. Opting for an insolent approach to an initially tragic event, pic builds to a potent moment of truth about the connection between sex, money and power.
Aggressively stylish widescreen lensing, desaturated autumnal colors and impressive perfs from those in transit, as well as from those rooted in the decor, all serve pic’s mild suspense about how Helene will cope with her new, offbeat life. Perfectly inhabiting her character, Blanc makes Helen’s dilemma palpable and poignant, rendering her transformation all the more interesting.
Jean-Luc Bideau entertains as one of her early clients who becomes a repeat customer.
Intelligent use of silence and near-silence vs. the intrusion of sound effectively translates Helene’s emotional status, and the movie’s intimate, cosseted tone reps a striking contrast to airport bustle.