Acting is pretending. Great acting is doing it in such a way that audiences forget the artifice and buy into the reality of the character completely. Not many are likely to mistake what Marion Cotillard does in “Angel Face” for great acting, as the glamorous French star gives a performance so phony it feels like a “Saturday Night Live” parody of a white-trash trainwreck, downright pathetic in its attempt to achieve what came so naturally to relative amateur Bria Vinaite in last year’s “The Florida Project.”
Buried under garish makeup and a ton of glitter, this Côte d’Azur project looks suspiciously as if first-time director Vanessa Filho caught Sean Baker’s ebullient unfit-mother movie last year at Cannes and tried to do the same thing, with markedly less convincing results. In France, Cotillard isn’t taken all that seriously to begin with, which won’t help the film’s domestic chances, while American audiences are already drowning in indie portraits of inappropriate parenthood (such as last year’s miserablist French-made “Mobile Homes,” or Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace”), and without critical support, this one doesn’t stand a chance.
Certainly, the general concept is familiar enough: Told from an innocent kid’s-eye point of view, “Angel Face” examines the dynamic between an immature young mom and the 8-year-old daughter who’s obliged to grow up too fast, forced to assume responsibility on account of her mother’s recklessness. In a heartbreaking scene at the outset of the movie, Marlène (Cotillard) collapses into her daughter Elli’s bed after a night of drinking and partying, and the poor girl (Ayline Etaix), in an instinctively caring gesture, caresses her mom’s face the way a parent might comfort a child awakened by nightmares. Unfortunately, nothing that follows comes anywhere near the simple truth or poignancy of that moment.
It practically goes without saying that Marlène has an alcohol problem — although the fact that it should go without saying means the movie does too: No matter what the time of day or situation, Filho goes out of her way to show Marlène with booze in her hand or otherwise overdoing it with alcohol. Before her own wedding, she sends Elli out to get a glass of wine, which she half-empties, leaving the rest for the girl to sample backstage. No scene seems complete without the obligatory cutaway of Marlène desperately sucking down a drink. At one point, she even offers Elli a taste, though she flips out a few scenes later when the girl, dragged along to a nightclub where she has no business being, sips from some of the abandoned cocktail glasses nearby.
Who can blame Elli for being curious about alcohol? She’s merely patterning the behavior or her only role model, who drinks to excess — so much so that any viewers cheeky enough to invent a drinking game (one where you take a sip every time Cotillard’s character does on-screen) would wind up being rushed to the hospital to have their stomach pumped. But it’s a step too far to write a scene, the movie’s finger-wagging equivalent of a make-pretend game of tea-time, in which Elli takes a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and serves a capful of whiskey to each of her stuffed animals.
Filho obviously wants to convey the naive outlook an impressionable young girl would have on her own situation, but there’s far too much manipulation involved to take her selection of scenes seriously. Elli doesn’t understand why someone from Social Services comes to the door, for instance, but she knows her role: to tell the nice woman that her mother is super and that everything is going great. She loves when Marlène takes her on a shopping spree at the local discount store, but doesn’t understand the “humiliation” her mom experiences when her card is declined at the register. And then there’s the rock-bottom moment in which her new stepdad (once-dreamy “Wild Reeds” star Stéphane Rideau, gone to seed) brings Elli to search for her mom, missing from her own wedding reception, only to inadvertently expose the kid to the most shameful case of Marlène’s compulsively self-destructive behavior.
This is a debut feature, so we ought to cut Filho some slack, but the director commits two unforgivable sins. First, it judges Marlène too harshly at every turn, contrasting the way Elli worships her mother with clues that Filho finds her behavior completely inappropriate (which may be true, but makes the film feel uncharitable and obvious). And second, it mistakes the fact that a star as big as Cotillard wanted to play the role as a sign that she was right for the part. She’s not. In fact, she’s a huge distraction — although it should be said that the movie loses nearly all interest when she disappears halfway through.
Last year, roughly a week before Cannes, Cotillard was dropped as an official face of Lady Dior, and this feels almost like a form of retaliation, as we find the beautiful actress slumming it in tacky sequined dresses and a garish combination of persimmon lipstick and cobalt-blue eyeliner, all of which feels like a transparent bid to subvert the high-class image she was trying to sell before. The movie craves a less-familiar actress in the role, the way “Montparnasse Bienvenüe” sold its leading lady’s spontaneity by casting relative unknown Laetitia Dosch. It accomplishes that with newcomer Etaix in the title role — an affectionate nickname for a girl who, at just eight years of age, looks like she could grow up to be the next Emmanuelle Béart.
But no child actress, no matter how talented, could sell the over-the-top finale in which (spoiler alert — though audiences deserve to be warned) the poor girl literally throws herself off a cliff. What 8-year-old would do that? It’s just the final manipulation in a film that never allows a moment of authentic, real-world emotion to occur. Yes, girls like Elli exist, forced into precocity by bad-example parents. But between the ersatz realism of the film’s shaky camerawork and the glittery pink filter through which Filho views the world, nobody’s buying it.