Lulu Femme Nue by Icelandic-born director Solveig Anspach is a heart-warming drama which celebrates female resilience and compassion. It is a French take on the classic American feel good movie raised to another level by the beautiful performance of Karin Viard in the lead role.
Viard is Lulu, a forty-something mother of three, who wants to find a job after years spent looking after house and husband. When a failed job interview leaves her humiliated and rejected, she decides not to return home and instead books herself into a hotel for the night. One night turns into several days during which she meets Charles (Bouli Lanners) a laid-back, teddy-bear of a man, and the two begin a love affair. Through this relationship, Lulu begins to regain her self-confidence and when she is discovered by her sister and daughter, prefers to move on rather than face going back to her old life. With no job or money, Lulu is forced to rely on the kindness of strangers to help her stay off the streets.
Anspach’s film is drawn from the graphic novels of Etienne Davodeau and at first Lulu seems as two-dimensional as her literary equivalent. What Anspach skilfully pulls offs is to gradually lift Lulu from the page and fill her out into a fully-rounded, sympathetic character. She is never an object of pity, but is portrayed as someone who wants to take a ‘time out’ from her daily life to see what else there is on offer. Anspach sets most of the tale in the out-of-season resort of St Gilles La Croix and the windswept, empty Atlantic beaches are the perfect setting for Lulu to find the space she needs to re-evaluate her life.
Told another way, Lulu’s decision to abandon her children, cheat on her husband and even resort to petty crime could bring on a bout of moral finger-wagging. But Anspach is not out to judge Lulu. And her journey of self-discovery reveals a woman who, far from being selfish and insensitive, is funny and generous and kind.
While the small-town Atlantic setting may be bleak and unwelcoming, the film mines a rich seam of comedy. Charles’ two brothers add a light, cartoonish, slapstick tone and Lulu herself turns out to have buried within a wry sense of humour. While Viard steals the show as Lulu, she is well-assisted by a cast of strong supporting actors including Lanners, playing against type as the cuddly, self-effacing lover and 86-year-old Claude Gensac. The scenes between Gensac and Viard are a jubilant hymn to female bonding at whatever age and provide the film’s most moving and insightful moments.
Lulu Femme Nue comes hard on the heels of last year’s Elle s’en Va which saw Catherine Deneuve walk away from a life which seemed to hold no surprises. Is this a new trend in modern French cinema? Watch this space.