When we first meet Alma (Déborah Lukumuena) and Margot (Souheila Yacoub), they are at each other’s throats. They are onstage, two of a gang of young hopefuls trying out for a plum role in a semi-experimental Parisian theatre piece, but the fight is not part of their audition. It is real, and yet at the same time, unreal.
There is something unconvincing in Margot’s ginned-up outburst, in the way it gets physical but not really, in the high theatrics of squaring off and flouncing out. And if we immediately realize why — outside the two embrace, laughing, gasping at the audacity of their ruse to get the attention of the play’s director — this opening, with its themes of performativity, showmanship and friendship so ferocious it can look like conflict, is the exactly appropriate in media res introduction to Anaïs Volpé’s first feature “The Braves” — perhaps even in some ways that are not quite under this promising new director’s control.
Margot and Alma’s gambit pays off. The director, Kristin (Sveva Alviti), hires Alma, who works in a nail salon by day, to be the lead, and while the friends are still celebrating this big break, word comes through that Margot, who tends bar part-time, is to be her understudy. They set about rehearsals for a play about a young woman’s reminiscences of arriving, alone and heavily pregnant, in America, with a seriousness belied by their offstage antics: stretching the limits of their employers’ patience, grubbing pennilessly around the streets of Paris, playing cruel tricks on exes.
The almost uncomfortable, helter-skelter dynamism of the first half of the film, created in no small part by Sean Price Williams’ close-up-heavy, kinetic, handheld camerawork (which really deserves third star billing after the two incandescent actresses), is slightly reminiscent of Josephine Decker’s “Madeline’s Madeline,” albeit without the abrasively experimental edge. Certainly, it seems that “The Braves” — which features quite a lot of the work-in-progress play and some lived-in observations about what goes into constructing a theatrical performance — will present some similarly thorny subtext about rivalry between talented females, and about the competitive, inherently self-centered pursuit of acting stardom. And then a serious illness intervenes, and the film stops being “Madeline’s Madeline” by way of “All About Eve,” and starts being an overbearingly up-close, highly-strung version of “Beaches,” in which the main source of drama is just who gets to be the wind under whose wings.
This abrupt swerve into weepie territory — complete with melodramatic self-sacrifice moments and kindly meant deceptions for the good of the patient’s spirits — is a disappointing turn. The shift suggests Volpé’s evident talents as a director of immense energy and personal vision are not yet matched by her skills as a screenwriter. And while the intrusive, almost confrontational shooting style is a really interesting choice in depicting a friendship that while platonic, is as passionate as any torrid love affair (and it’s lovely to see a mutually-supportive-to-the-point-of-folly female friendship celebrated so brashly and without apology), a lot of that texture gets lost when the story becomes so straightforwardly one of bearing up in the looming shadow of incipient tragedy.
Instead of raggedly illustrating the not-always-admirable choices the two make, like they’re slightly deranged, cackling conspirators who believe that together they can take on the world, the latter part of the film moves to the far more familiar beats of the disease-drama. And without any change in the shooting style, it mostly manifests in endless close-ups of tear-streaked faces, trembling chins and anguished glances.
It’s not that the tearjerker aspect is not effective. The two actors are too good for the film’s manipulations not to have the desired effect. Yacoub, seen in Gaspar Noé’s “Climax” and Philippe Garrel’s “The Salt of Tears,” is a very appealing presence, summoning a real current of soulmate chemistry with Lukumuena, who is still best known for Houda Benyamina’s “Divines” but here gives her second impressive (and enormously different) Cannes 2021 performance after Critics’ Week opener “Robust.”
But without any modulation in the brazen, head-on-collision presentation, once the story takes a turn for the sappy, there is really nowhere for any subtlety or subtext to hide. It’s strange that the film’s French title, “Entre les vagues,” should translate to “Between the Waves” because in “The Braves,” there is no “between.” No sooner has one disproportionate breaker of emotion crashed against the shore than another is cresting right behind.