Les Femmes des l’ombre

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“Wartime derring-do with the Inglourious Bastardettes.”

It’s May 1944, and the imminent D-day landings by the Allies in France are imperiled, when a geologist, sent to check one of the beaches, is injured and ends up in hospital. A team of five Frenchwomen, from various backgrounds and led by Louise (Marceau), a trained sniper whose husband was recently killed by Ze Germans, is sent in to occupied territory to rescue the geologist before he is found by Colonel Heindrich (Bleibtreu), and forced to give up the location of the invasion, allowing the Germans to meet it head-on. However, that turns out to be just the start of their dangerous mission.

First off, the French title, which translates as “Women of the shadow”, is a good deal more evocative than the bland “Female Agents” one, and conveys much better the…well, shadowy nature of the enterprise. It feels somewhat of a cross between The Dirty Dozen and Inglourious Basterds, with the team cobbled together from irregular forces, such as Jeanne (Depardieu, Gerard’s daughter), a prostitute who faced the hangman’s noose for murdering her pimp, or Suzy (Gillain), who used to be Heindrich’s mistress. This could have led to caricature – the whore, the smart one, the devout Catholic – yet the film, largely avoids this. Even Heindrich is not a stereotypical Nazi, another aspect that reminded us of Basterds, though the Allied force here is far less brutal.

It’s a solid piece of action/drama, which managed to keep both of us awake, despite a session earlier in the evening at the “all you can eat” fish fry; normally, that requires 30,000 Volts to keep us from sliding into post-gluttony unconsciousness. I think Chris enjoyed the movie a little more: I was somewhat on the fence about giving it the seal, finding some of the plotting a little convoluted and occasionally implausible, but her endorsement of this as “great” provided sufficient impetus. Marceau is particularly good, exuding steely resolve to hold the team together, and Bleibtreu makes an excellent foil, coming across as equally smart and committed as Louise. Their conflict is the glue that binds the story together, and makes it one of the best efforts in the wartime heroine genre to date.

[Note: The film is loosely – very loosely – based on Lisé de Baissac, who did operate undercover in France during the second-half of the war. However, there’s little or no evidence of any mission that parallels the one depicted in the film. In the time leading up to D-day, she was doing reconnaissance work in Normandy, scouting out holding grounds for airborne troops.]

Dir: Jean-Paul Salomé
Star: Sophie Marceau, Julie Depardieu, Marie Gillain, Moritz Bleibtreu
a.k.a. Female Agents

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