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A distaff director working on a docu-fiction project with French inmates falls for one of the convicts in “Free Hands,” a strongly acted but thematically imprecise debut from thesp-turned-helmer Brigitte Sy. Story about jailbirds whose lives are workshopped into a film-within-the-film mainly explores the gray area between reality and fiction, which seems only fitting coming from the actress known for her semi-documentary turns as Philippe Garrel’s wife (in Garrel’s “Emergency Kisses”), and as the mother of their child Louis (in “Kisses” and “Regular Lovers”). Fests will free up slots, but further breakout is unlikely.

Barbara (Ronit Elkabetz) works with a group of long-term inmates whom she interviews before reworking and filming their stories with them. When she writes her romantic interest in one of her subjects (Carlo Brandt) into her film, things grow complicated. Elkabetz, looking more like a Pre-Raphaelite femme than ever, offers her most complex French-language turn yet, and the closeups of the talking inmates also impress. But Sy merely rummages around in her themes rather than tackling them head-on, so pic fails to fully come together. Documentary look contrasts with melodramatic flourishes, such as a clarinet-and-accordion score.

Free Hands

France

  • Production: A Chrysalis Films release of a Mezzanine Films presentation and production, in association with Canal Plus, Cinecinema. (International sales: Films Boutique, Berlin.) Produced by Mathieu Bompoint, Claire Trinquet. Directed by Brigitte Sy. Screenplay, Sy, Gaelle Mace.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Frederic Serve; editor, Julie Dupre; music, Daniel Mille; production designer, Francoise Arnaud; costume designer, Arnaud. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Forum), Feb. 16, 2011. (Also in Rendez-vous With French Cinema, New York.) Running time: 100 MIN.
  • With: With: Ronit Elkabetz, Carlo Brandt, Noemie Lvovsky, Camille Figuereo, Adama Doumbia, Denis Marechal, Gurgon Kyap, Abdelhafid Metalsi, Xavier Legrand, Ahmed M'hemdi, Francois Negret, Alain Ollivier. (French, English dialogue)
  • Music By: