The title may suggest a cute indie comedy about the angsty pitfalls of young womanhood, the sort that might feature Greta Gerwig or Lena Dunham, but the subject of “Party Girl” has many more years, and heartaches, under her not-so-chic belt. This accomplished if unexceptional debut feature from three former film-school friends is a fiction piece done in verite style, inspired by the real-life situation of the mother of one of the trio, with close family members all playing themselves. Following its debut as this year’s Cannes Un Certain Regard opener, the party should continue at further festival fetes with a few encores of niche theatrical play to follow.
Sixtyish Angelique (Angelique Litzenburger) has lived all her adult life working in late-night cabaret bars, socializing with male customers on the condition that they pony up for expensive liquor. She has known romance, or at least male intimacy, over the years, but is nevertheless caught off guard when one of her customers, retired coal miner Michel (Joseph Bour), pursues a relationship with her and quickly suggests marriage. For Angelique, it’s a chance to move on from living in a small room above the bar and step off her boozy treadmill into a life of companionship and relative comfort.
Claire Burger, Marie Amachoukeli and Samuel Theis first collaborated on their 35-minute film-school short “Forbach,” which likewise utilized real members of Theis’ family. Burger and Amachoukeli went on to make a few more short films before here reuniting with Theis, and returning to the terrain of their earlier endeavor. Set in eastern France near the German border, “Party Girl” is inspired by the unexpected wedding of Theis’ mother, Litzenburger, a few years ago.
Despite the participation of Theis, his mother and his three siblings Mario, Severine and Cynthia, the drama is no sentimental celebration. Angelique is depicted as having a soft spot for Paris-dwelling Sam, and the reverse is doubtless also true, but the filmmaker doesn’t flinch from gazing candidly at her flaws as well as her finer qualities. “You’re an angry drunk, mean and aggressive,” she’s told at one point, and it’s hard to disagree. Her beau, meanwhile, is a well-intentioned man who is unaware of his chauvinism and who expects to be respected in the house that he owns. Easy to like, but perhaps difficult to love, he never appreciates the degree to which Angelique’s former life has defined her comfort zone.
With its depiction of a feisty, fun-loving woman in late middle age, “Party Girl” explores some of the same terrain as Sebastian Lelio’s 2013 Berlinale hit “Gloria,” although Paulina Garcia’s titular Santiago divorcee proved more consistently empathetic. The film’s working-class milieu recalls the likes of France’s Robert Guediguian and Belgium’s Dardenne brothers, although the sociopolitical context remains mostly in the background, and the filmmakers shy away from tugging heartstrings. Angelique’s reunion with her 16-year-old daughter Cynthia, who has been living with a foster family, reps the most emotionally engaging story strand.
So far, Samuel Theis’ instincts that his own family can provide characters just as rich as conventionally scripted dramas is proving astute, especially in the case of Angelique, whose agile emoting yields plenty to the viewer while hinting at deeper hurts. The score is deplored sparingly, allowing songs by Chinawoman (aka Canadian singer-songwriter Michelle Gurevich) to leave their mark, notably a closing cut that shares the film’s title. Perhaps as a result of significant input from the actors, the adroit wardrobe, jewelry, hair and makeup choices help the viewer get a firm grasp of the characters, with Angelique’s zebra-stripe trousers and leopard-print coat nicely echoing the wolf and eagle tattoos on Michel’s upper arms. Viewers hoping this presages a happy meeting of hearts and minds, however, are advised to look elsewhere.