La Belle et la Belle

(When Margaux Met Margaux, Sophie Fillières, France, 2018)


There’s a modest baseline of a certain, contemporary kind of French cinema that is wedged, a little awkwardly, between popular success and festival recognition. A cinema of interpersonal relationships, above all: getting to the first genuine step of a new love, or finding the courage to walk out of an old one. Stories of families, generations, single parents, work/life balance, births and deaths. Light comedies, dipping at moments into heavier drama. Generally pretty ordinary, everyday settings. More or less middle-class in orientation – although that stretches all the way from precarity to privilege, with plenty of routine comforts (such as holidays away) in-between. Familiar actors (plus some musicians, directors, critics) who get to play in a sometimes stylised, sometimes quotidian fashion. Characters in ordinary professions: teachers, students, civil servants, nurses, doctors, lawyers …

Claude Sautet (1924-2000) was once the avowed master of this genre – and still gets critically abused, by some, for creating it – and now it’s mainly female directors who either choose it, or get slotted into it, or both: Anne Fontaine, Noémie Lvovsky, Émilie Deleuze, Julie Bertucelli, Léonor Serraille, Axelle Ropert. Agnès Jaoui is probably the most commercially successful figure from this field; and Mia Hansen-Løve the most accepted and known in the art film/festival sphere.

There is sometimes an overlap of aesthetics and personnel from this loose group to another loose group, somewhat more reflexive/modernistic, associated with the work or legacy of Paul Vecchiali’s low-budget Diagonale production adventure: Jean-Claude Biette, Sandrine Rinaldi, Serge Bozon, Jeanne Balibar, Pierre Léon, Marie-Claude Treilhou. But that’s a large topic for other times.

Sophie Fillières (1964-2023) is a writer-director whose work I have just begun to explore; La Belle et la Belle was her sixth feature (her final work, This Life of Mine starring Jaoui, has been finished posthumously to premiere in Cannes 2024). Without taking much note of it, I had encountered her presence or her mark in numerous films: as a scriptwriter she worked on Philippe Grandrieux’s Sombre (1997) and Benoît Jacquot’s Emma Zunz (1992); as an actor she appeared in Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall (2023). There is an excellent essay on Fillières’ work as auteur by Marie Anne Guerin in the rising French film magazine Apaches, no. 5 (Spring 2024). Fillières – who often worked with her sister, Hélène – is the epitome of this particular slice of French cinema I am trying to grasp here.

La Belle et la Belle (‘The Beauty and the Beauty’) was given the no-less-unwieldy English title of When Margaux Met Margaux, which cues you to the project’s rather oblique romantic comedy angle. It is a mildly fantastique fable – Guerin describes it as “a fantasy in the musical sense, in the way that the fiction and poetry are musical” – staged in a simple, unostentatious manner. The score, composed by Kaspar Winding, betrays a slight uncertainty of tone: in the early stages of the plot, and in more obviously slapstick moments, there’s the tired old ‘comedy music’ of wacky horns, ukuleles and plucked strings. As things progress, the music mellows out into plaintive, dramatic music, and that works a heck of a lot better.

The premise runs as follows: Margaux 1 (Sandrine Kiberlain, turning on, for comical moments, her Chaplinesque, manic-pixie-woman persona) has hit the age of 45 and is essentially dithering around, looking for an orientation. One evening, at a party where she awkwardly finds herself in a sea of teenagers and young adults, she encounters, in the bathroom, Margaux 2 (Agathe Bonitzer, who projects sullen, silent brooding and sovereign indifference like a death laser).

They are the same person, separated by 25 years – as M1 demonstrates whenever she advises M2 on what to do, or not to do, next in her actions. M2 flees, unhappy at this awkward intrusion into her life. But she subsequently keeps discovering her elder self wherever she goes. And (here’s the rom-com bit) there’s a man between them, whom they share: Marc (Melvil Poupaud). And a little matter of pregnancy, to be accepted or rejected in the course of shaping one’s destiny …

This is not some tricksy multiverse story. And it’s even less like the time-travelling-woman narrative of Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) than Lvovsky’s delightful Camille Rewinds (2012) was. Don’t ponder the complications of how these two (and maybe more?) Margaux-bodies can manage to inhabit the same time-space continuum, let alone the same biography. For Fillières, the fantasy situation sprinkles a little magic onto the stations of normality; it also allows a special kind of relationship exploration.

Marc is an interesting figure, but he’s incidental to the core of the film. As Florence Maillard expressed this core in her sympathetic review in Cahiers du cinéma (no. 472, March 2018), it is the women who must “unglue” themselves from their mutual mirror-reflection in order to “find the way to address one another”. She sums up: “To make a place, rather than hold or occupy their place: this is a form of morality that implicates the characters just as much as it does the mise en scène”. Touché!

As I watched the film unfold, I found myself enchanted and beguiled by an intriguing play of details and situations, all bearing upon confusion of direction and ambiguity of signifying reference. Two Margauxs and a Marc all bump into one another while moving along a TGV train in transit from Paris to Lyon. The dialogue keeps stumbling upon an uncertainty of reference: are you travelling up or down, going or returning, to or from? When a celebrity dancer (Aurélie Dupont), who happens to be also on board, signs dedications in the cafeteria to all three in turn, a discussion takes place as to the best linguistic form of such as inscription: à or pour? There is an entire game of hand gestures and signals across the film: a twist of the fingers can mean ‘I’ll come down’, ‘you come to me’ or ‘I’ll come up’! In the one incident that potentially indicates a shift in the story’s essential premise – a ski accident – M2 struggles to remember a sequence of three simple words, house, red and car; that will return as a resolving motif in the final scene. Of such passing reality-distortions is this fantasy-fable comprised.

Naturally, the pattern of references to orientation and meaning shunt us back to the central theme. M1 muses and hypothesises that the supernatural situation her and M2 find themselves in offers them both the “chance of a lifetime to start over”. But where’s the up and down, the to and from, the origin and destination in this doubling? Nobody, us included, knows. Fillières opens up, in this manner, the question not only of an individual’s relation to themselves at other ages (both younger and older), but also of generational interaction – and, specifically but strategically displaced, the difficult mother-daughter bond, which navigates both resemblance and difference: an inevitable layer, since Agathe Bonitzer is Fillières’ real-life daughter (her father is critic-screenwriter-director Pascal Bonitzer). The Beauty and the Beauty: there’s no Manichean ‘other side’, no evil double or twin, no Beast here.

Unglued, the two Margaux’s separate on another ordinary setting – a train platform. Marc takes the opportunity to get himself, at last, into the centre of the story and reorient the older M’s attention: “This is where it’s happening”. To which she replies: “Now I know.”

© Adrian Martin 11 April 2024

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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