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R: ARCHIVE, S: REVIEWS, D: 11/14/1996, B: Peter Keough,

Cinéma-clarité

Benoît Jacquot's A Single Girl stands alone

by Peter Keough

A SINGLE GIRL. Directed by Beno"t Jacquot. Written by Beno"t Jacquot and Jźrome Beaujour. With Virginie Ledoyen, Beno"t Magimel, Dominique Valedie, Guillemette Grobon, Michel Bompoil, and Véra Briole. A Strand Pictures release. At the Coolidge Corner.

With special effects, big stars, and generic conventions dominating the screens, the old ideal that film should record and re-create experience tends to get lost. It's an impossible ideal, of course -- of all art forms, film is the most deceptive, manipulative, and illusory -- but attempts to achieve it have resulted in some of the most illuminating and stirring examples of the medium. One such is French director Beno"t Jacquot's A Single Girl. A real-time account of some 90 crucial and routine minutes in the life of the title character, it's a thrilling semblance of life -- nuanced, spontaneous, ironic and raw. More important, it's an intense, almost frightening look into a human soul, a record of pain, delight, anger, and change that is, in a sense, the real thing.

That accomplishment can be credited as much to the performer as the filmmaker. Virginie Ledoyen has a flawless face, one that bears a porcelain cast of afflicted toughness but is capable of mercurial expressions tracing the most fleeting emotions. As Valérie, she's a young Parisian woman starting out a tough day. Before beginning her first shift as a room-service waitress in a fancy hotel, she's meeting with her boyfriend at a café. She's pregnant, and when she informs Remi (Beno"t Magimel), a callow idler, that she wants to keep the child, he's not thrilled. A tremor of recognition passes over Valérie's face; this is not the man she will be spending the rest of her life with. She arranges to meet with him for lunch to decide what they're going to do.

Meanwhile, she has to make a living, so, preoccupied, she hurries to the hotel. As she changes into her uniform, the camera lingers on the play of feelings on her face with an irresistible voyeurism that extends to the labyrinthine inner world of the hotel as Valérie sets about her duties. As others -- callous, damaged, or attracted -- try to intrude on her life, she by necessity must intrude on others. In one tense and complex scene she's probed by Mme. Charles (Guillemette Grobon), the icy personnel manager, about why Valérie left her last job. As she's worming out Valérie's tale of sexual harassment, the phone rings, and Mme. Charles is drawn into a testy, highly personal dialogue. Herself exposed, she dismisses Valérie with the observation that she's pretty. "That's a compliment," she adds. "But also a warning."

Her meaning is clear. In short order the randy waiter Jean-Marc (Michel Bompoil) ogles her and his lover, Sabine (Véra Briole), snubs her. Later, in an empty room where she's on the phone to her mother (Dominique Valedie), Jean-Marc corners her. Rebuffed, he threatens to report her unauthorized calls. The target of unwanted friendliness and hostility, she's asked repeatedly the same question, "Is something wrong?"

It's not just the staff that's the problem. Valérie must contend with the hectic, regimented grind of the job. With the camera focused on her face, she darts down the hallways, into and out of elevators and into rooms that might harbor a father weeping over his estranged son or a kinky couple in flagrante accusing her of vomiting in their tub. But Valérie has a highly developed survival instinct and a grit that belies her angelic appearance. She also has a reservoir of mirth that bursts out unexpectedly, as when she sprints into the lobby after her confrontation with Mme. Charles. Before her lunch break, she's slapped Jean-Marc in the face, made a friend, and made a decision, and when she dashes out of the hotel to meet with Remi, her flight evokes freedom as much as fate.

That's the kind of moment that gives A Single Girl its startling authenticity. Jacquot has a keen eye for the kind of details that are instantly familiar but hard to invent, like the way people bump closing elevator doors open while trying to have a conversation. Photographed mostly in tight traveling shots with an occasional long shot evoking a sense of foreboding and entrapment, the movie is claustrophobic, harried, sexually charged. At times the artifice protrudes, spoiling the cinéma-vérité illusion -- the editing can be a bit too glib, and the film's epilogue is redundant and deflating. But as a portrait of a solitary young soul taking on the world, A Single Girl triumphs. "I need a story," says Valérie as she leaves Remi, needing an excuse to account for her absence. When asked what she will tell the hotel, she says, "the truth." A Single Girl does the same.