Review: Orpheline (2016)

Orpheline (2016)

Directed by: Arnaud des Pallieres | 111 minutes | drama | Actors: Adèle Haenel, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Solène Rigot, Vega Cuzytek, Jalil Lespert, Gemma Arterton, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Sergi López, Karim Leklou, Robert Hunger-Bühler, Mehdi Meskar

Our personality consists of different aspects, which are formed in the different phases in our life. The French filmmaker Arnaud des Pallières takes this very literally for his film ‘Orpheline’ (2016): the film consists of four ‘chapters’ about four different women in four different ages. At least that’s how it seems. Because despite the fact that the leading women per segment all have a different name and are played by a different actress, this is about one and the same woman. A woman who, after a traumatic event in her youth, tries to get a grip on her life through trial and error. The story is based on the life history of Christelle Berthevas (according to her, about sixty percent of the events are true), the screenwriter with whom Des Pallières previously wrote the historical epic ‘Michael Kohlhaas’ (2013) and who is also responsible for the screenplay of ‘Orpheline’. After many long conversations about her childhood, and her search for who she is, the autobiographical elements were developed into a psychological drama, which stands out not only for its striking structure, but also for its unconventional structure.

The story does not run in chronological order, but always takes a step back in time. The film opens with a woman in her thirties coming out of prison. The first thing this Tara (Gemma Arterton, who speaks quite a bit of French for a British woman) does is visit school principal Renée (Adèle Haenel). Renée leads an exemplary life; she is married to Darius (Jalil Lespert) and is committed to providing underprivileged children with a solid education. Her great wish is to become a mother, and after a lengthy medical process she finally seems to be pregnant. The arrival of Tara, who comes to claim her share of a loot, turns her life upside down. Especially when she is lifted from her bed the next morning by the police, who arrest her under a name unknown to her husband – Karine. Then we meet Sandra (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a young woman in her early twenties who hangs out in a cafe with a much older man (Robert Hunger-Bühler), who offers her a job as a ‘runner’ in the horse races. Here Sandra meets Tara, who has nefarious plans to scam and run off with a lot of money, and Sandra seduces into a crucial part in the scam. After a short fast forward to the pregnant Renée in prison, we dive even further into the past, to the precocious Karine (Solène Rigot). Although she tells everyone that she is already eighteen (or at least sixteen), she is only thirteen. To escape her abusive father, she dives into the disco night after night, to work with much older men. When she decides to run away, married Maurice (Sergi López) takes her in like a real sugar daddy. The last part in this four-part series revolves around six-year-old Kiki (Vega Cuzytek), who is playing hide-and-seek with two friends in the junkyard, a place where they are not supposed to go. When she can’t find her friends, panic sets in.

Ultimately, all four stories come together in the final chord, in which we return to the present tense. It takes a while for Des Pallières to set all his lines and he is very sparing in handing out puzzle pieces to his viewers. It is that we know that Renée, Sandra, Karine and Kiki are (different aspects of) one and the same person, because there are hardly any indications and parallels to underline this. Also, the actresses don’t really look alike. The stories can also be seen separately from each other, as short personality sketches. The four female leads are on a roll in the limited time they are given; With Haenel and Exarchopoulos, Des Pallières has of course also managed to attract two great talents, but the young Solène Rigot also convinces as a teenager who is so desperate for attention that she surrenders without hesitation to just about every man who comes her way. Sexuality, identity and the search for a father figure are important themes, which are well maintained in all four stories. How do you continue with your life after a violent event in your youth; for Renée/Sandra/Karine/Kiki it is a tough learning path towards adulthood.

‘Orpheline’ captivates with its fascinating mini-portraits of four women, chafes here and there because of the intense life lessons the protagonist has to deal with and frustrates because the scenario offers too few parallels between the stories to form a convincingly coherent whole. Because Des Pallières shows daring with his approach, and because the actresses put their best foot forward, ‘Orpheline’ still has a positive balance.

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