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by Jay Seaver

"A genuinely strange ménage ŕ trois."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Well, that was certainly something. Two somethings, maybe, which isn't a bad rate of success at all for a weird little art-house movie that clocks in at just a little more than an hour. "Bas-fonds" ("low-lives") is far from perfect, but a large chunk can knock the audience flat.

Why? Because the three central performances are ferocious. Valérie Nataf, Noémie Le Carrer, and Ginger Romŕn play a trio of women who are true outsiders, and their performances reflect a complete lack of interest in societal norms - it would be called overacting or theatrical in more conventional settings, but the yelling and various other forms of hysteria in those scenes is instead a genuinely shocking example of just how utterly divorced from the rest of the world these women are. The first half of the movie is mostly them running completely amok, letting the audience marvel at their odd dynamic, sexually and otherwise.

Odd because, in most cases, one might expect Ginger Romŕn's pretty blonde Barbara Vidal to be the queen bee of the group, but she's not - writer/director Isild Le Besco has Romŕn play her as nervous and subservient, always craving approval even when that should be an easy thing to come by. Noémie Le Carrer, meanwhile, has the younger of the Pichon sisters, Marie-Stéphane, positioned somewhere in between Barbara and Magalie, dominated by her older sister but also with some of her cruelty. There's a confidence to her that comes from knowing her place exactly; she can be on her knees scrubbing the floor and still cut Barbara down.

And what's that make Valérie Nataf's Magalie? A monster, initially, but sort of a fascinating one. Magalie's a character that might be played for laughs in other movies - the fat girl who thinks she's hot stuff, or the androgynously-named-but-unseen bully - but here it's done straight while still over-the-top. Viewed from the outside, Magalie is absurd - overweight, slovenly, screaming to demand hooch - but it is possible to get the idea that Barbara would fall under her spell. She so completely doesn't seem to care about anything else but herself (at least at the start), and Nataf runs with that lack of restraint.

As much as the performances are let loose, the primal emotions of those performances are honed by how Le Besco carefully changes perspectives. We do initially see Magalie as kind of absurd and ridiculous, but a flashback to how Barbara first met the sisters lets us see exactly how compelling and attractive she might seem to someone who always let others define her role. When the characters' crimes (which start at squatting in an empty apartment and escalate) catch up with them, Le Besco exaggerates the carefully regimented court proceedings as a contrast to the chaos which came before, and then the scenes in prison are something else again.

Bas-fonds doesn't exactly fall apart once it reaches that point, but it doesn't pull together, either. Le Besco had up until then propelled it forward on the opening act's manic energy, and while it's easy to see why the entirety of the original real-life events would inspire her, with its peculiar 180-degree character shift that parallels Barbara's giving herself over to Margalie, she seems to have a hard time portraying it beyond saying it's a strange thing that happened.

That's enough, though, especially since the movie isn't drawn out more than it need be. "Bas-fonds" is certainly never going to break into the mainstream, but as curiosities go, it's certainly one of the more attention-grabbing ones to come along in a while.

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originally posted: 08/30/11 01:39:37
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.

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Directed by
  Isild Le Besco

Written by
  Isild Le Besco

  Valérie Nataf
  Ginger Romŕn
  Noémie Le Carrer

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