Taking its title from a Zen proverb promising an ultimate reward for perseverance (seven times down, eight times up), Gallic helmer-scripter Xabi Molia’s debut feature blithely chronicles the respective adventures of two down-and-outers (Julie Gayet, Denis Podalydes) who, unable to secure jobs, soon find themselves homeless. Neither celebrating its characters’ marginality nor spiraling into grunginess, pic adopts a curious, almost whimsical tone toward its social-problem plot. This relatively light approach to heavy subject-matter, while refreshingly unique, may spell strictly arthouse appeal when “8 Times Up” bows April 14 in France.
Elsa (Gayet) is divorced, with an estranged 10-year-old son (Kevyn Frachon) for whom she rarely exercises the visitation rights granted by her amiable ex (Frederic Bocquet). Nervously alternating between vulnerability and prickly anger (Gayet snagged actress kudos at the Tokyo Film Fest), Elsa appears more than slightly off-balance, though whether her emotional fragility led to her divorce or stems from it — or neither — remains unclear.
Molia plunges the viewer in, withholding backstory that does not directly spill over into the present. Though auds experience every aspect of Elsa’s displacement, they aren’t given information about how she got there — particularly since she is introduced lying through her teeth at a job interview, her professed English fluency faltering into incoherent babble. She subsists on part-time hand-to-mouth gigs that cannot pay the rent, staving off eviction by eliciting the sympathies of prospective tenants checking out her apartment. But these instinctive survival skills never translate into the self-confidence necessary to land a real job.
Indeed, one of the pic’s running gags centers on which of the main characters’ employment-seeking strategies is more hopelessly ineffectual — Elsa’s inept lies or the painful honesty of her neighbor Mathieu (Podalydes), himself on the verge of eviction. His job search is a masterpiece of comic cluelessness: Asked to name his main quality, he answers “doubt,” adding that it is very helpful in a team effort to have someone who questions absolutely everything.
If Molia occasionally turns homelessness and unemployment into laughing matters, the absurdity springs from a detached stylistic approach that’s sustained throughout, not always manifesting itself comically. The distance achieved from Gayet’s Elsa, despite the camera’s near-constant proximity, results in a disassociated, closed-off character who’s difficult to identify with. Her exhausting struggle to stay afloat climaxes on a weekend seaside excursion that takes a near-tragic turn, albeit one that proves that Molia’s removed tone is alive with possibilities, open to happenstance and malleable to perception. As a chance-met woman in a cafe puts it, it’s not that people are unkind, they are only dispersed.