Sarah may prefer to run, but she doesn’t get anywhere particularly notable in this determinedly flat character study from debuting Quebecois writer-director Chloe Robichaud. Sophie Desmarais gives a precisely tuned performance as a gifted young runner whose commitment to the activity has obliterated any vestiges of a personality or social life, a condition that Robichaud examines with meticulous formal restraint and occasional wry humor. The result is a technically skilled, dramatically listless portrait of a character whose bewildering impassivity never crosses the line into compelling, likely to enjoy a good festival run but little commercial payoff.

Quiet, petite and mousily attractive, with large eyes that seem to take in a great deal yet project back almost nothing in return, 20-year-old Sarah Lepage (Desmarais) is introduced training with (and handily beating) the other girls on her track team. Her passion for running is so all-consuming that she has few friends and almost no other dreams or prospects, to the concern of her mother (Helene Florent), who doesn’t approve when Sarah receives an invitation to join the running team at McGill U. in Montreal.

In an odd development, Sarah’s friendly co-worker, Antoine (Jean-Sebastien Courchesne), impulsively suggests that they move to Montreal together and become roommates, then proposes that they earn additional financial benefits by getting married. Single-mindedly focused on realizing her athletic dreams, Sarah agrees to all this with an emotionless shrug of assent, and sometimes not even that; when Antoine asks to take her out to dinner after their wedding, she mutters “What for?” and dons her running gear.

With their marriage of convenience established, the film gradually starts to chip away at Sarah’s defenses, quietly exposing the ways in which she has used her intense physical commitment to short-circuit her thoughts and feelings. The metaphorical significance of her chosen activity is all too obvious: She’s literally running away from herself. It’s not until she begins standing still, long enough to interact with friends like fellow runner Zoey (Genevieve Boivin-Roussy) or indulge Antoine’s growing attraction to her, that she begins to gain an uncomfortable understanding of herself. Yet this understanding, which in a more dynamic protagonist would have yielded dramatic fireworks, is instead silently acknowledged and carefully sidelined.

In a performance marked by intense watchfulness and very little dialogue, Desmarais signals these inner revelations adroitly enough, and she handles the demanding physical side of the role with aplomb. But there’s a limit to how much interest most viewers will invest in a central figure so willfully, frustratingly blank, and so seemingly devoid of basic social graces; there would seem to be some deeper pathology at work here that the film barely hints at, let alone reveals.

In this context, Courchesne’s performance as a sensitive, well-adjusted, emotionally and physically available guy registers as all the more appealing, and the tension between Antoine’s openness and Sarah’s opacity yields some drolly humorous moments. Jessica Lee Gagne’s deliberately drab cinematography provides a visual correlative for Sarah’s inexpressive nature in a spare, focused technical package that features strictly diegetic music.

Cannes Film Review: ‘Sarah Prefers to Run’

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 21, 2013. Running time: 92 MIN. Original title: "Sarah prefere la course"

  • Production: (Canada) A Les Films Seville release and presentation of a La Boite a Fanny production. (International sales: Entertainment One Film Intl.) Produced by Fanny-Laure Malo. Executive producers, Rene Malo, Chloe Robichaud.
  • Crew: Directed, written by Chloe Robichaud. Camera (color, HD), Jessica Lee Gagne; editor, Michel Arcand; art director, Bruno-Pierre Houle; costume designer, Noemi Poulin; sound, Francois Grenon, Jean-Francois Sauve, Luc Boudrias; assistant director, Catherine Kirouac.
  • With: Sophie Desmarais, Jean-Sebastien Courchesne, Genevieve Boivin-Roussy, Eve Duranceau, Benoit Gouin, Pierre-Luc Lafontaine, Helene Florent, Micheline Lanctot.