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This Life of Mine (Ma Vie Ma Gueule)

A middle-aged woman questions her life through poetry and interactions with hospital inmates - French drama opens the Directors' Fortnight section of the 77th Festival de Cannes


Barberie Bichette is a poet; or so she says. She certainly spends much of her time in artistic mode, whether it’s writing self-reflective verses at board meetings, or gifting street-beggars with recitals after buying them drinks. Her poems sparkle with imagination, precisely because she lives in her daydreams. A chance encounter with a former paramour is the straw that finally breaks her spirit, and she wakes up in a hospital, surrounded by inmates who know her. When she’s finally allowed to leave the hospital, she decides to spend a week in England with her two adult children, before self-doubt kicks in once again.

A personal project for Sophie Fillières, the film holds an added sadness in the advent of her death. The story is divided into three chapters, typified by words that meant a great deal to the director: ‘Pif’, ‘Paf’ and ‘Youkou!’. The first two chapters, though somewhat haphazard in their narrative ambition, have merit, focusing on the mother’s relationship with her family (which likely stemmed from a truthful place for director Sophie Fillières, who trusted her youths Agathe and Adam Bonitzer with the editing process). Ultimately, the film loses all sense of itself during the third section, which inexplicably shifts the main character from metropolitan France to pastoral Britain; without establishing cause or reason. Stylistically and thematically, it feels like an entirely different beast, abandoning gallows humour for a more mawkish, tender finale. If there’s an aphorism on display, it’s lost between the regional accents and billowing blades of grass that make up the English countryside.

What makes the destination all the more unfortunate is that the film sidelines the two adolescents from their roles as protective guardians to passive, catch-phrase uttering comedy sidekicks. Considering the production – Filiéres watched rushes from her hospital bed – it’s possible that some of the nuances were lost in the transmission, but the children are given precious little to do in the final third. (Of the two arcs, Angelina Woreth has the more complex role as the headstrong teenage daughter; Eduard Sulpice’s ‘Junior’ feels frustratingly undernourished onscreen.)

Instead,the focus is on Barberie – who looks like the doll she regularly compares herself to – which is fitting, because Agnés Jaoui really delivers as an invalid worried about her immediate environment. She spends much of the first chapter making jokes at the expense of her therapist, before coming to grips with her fragile health in ‘Paf’ (the most assured and impactful of the chapters.) We witness a fifty-five year old witherning in a hospital bed, at pains to distinguish one hospital assistant from another (instead, she calls them all ‘Fanfan’). Weirdly, the hospital set-up suits Jaoui who flits from anxious to agitated; often in the same frame. When Barberie is finally reunited with her children, she throws her arms around them; as if mirroring the director who was set to hug her young ones for the last time.

Although it largely defies conventions, This Life of Mine is predominantly a tragicomedy – or so it seems for the first two sections. Whether it’s losing nerve or steam, ‘Youkou!’ nevertheless throws audiences headfirst into something fluffier and more child-friendly, sitting deeply at odds with the character and narrative beats of what has gone on before. Jaoui looks embarrassed, marching across wild, untamed lawns with the march and poise of a toddler enjoying a day out.
Jaoui’s Barberie embraces her inner child more effectively during the opening minutes, mocking the various typographies on her computer with steady, sure timing. But behind the jokes stands a certain despair; a despair that’s almost as desultory as the film it stands in.

This Life of Mine just premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight section of the 77th Festival de Cannes.

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