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Steinway or the Highway

Highly Strung/You Will Be Mine (2009)

Little Stone Distribution

With an English-language title like “Highly Strung,” one expects Sophie Laloy’s film to have either a tennis or a string-quartet setting. It’s actually about Marie (Judith Davis, no relation to Judy), a pianist who must move in with Emma (Isild Le Besco), a family acquaintance her own age, in order to afford her university studies. Marie is disorganized but intensely committed to her studies, and soon — to her surprise — these include a sexual awakening. This awakening is without direction until the night Emma rescues Marie from a violent man in a club. Marie is very grateful, but Emma wants more. One thing leads to another, pretty much as you’d expect.

Ms. Le Besco is considered a wild child of French cinema, and apparently was very brave to have done the role — which was done better by Jennifer Jason Leigh in “Single White Female.” Worse, Ms. Le Besco has little to do but wear her hair up, offer chocolates, scowl and throw tantrums. The hermetic world of her apartment is carefully brought to life by Marie-Helene Sulmoni’s production design; but Emma herself is such a cipher that we don’t even learn why these two girls might have been drawn together in the first place. There’s no mutual loneliness or desperation, such as in Erick Zonca’s “The Dream Life of Angels,” nor is there any joy at discovering an illicit sexual compatibility, such as in “The Lover.” Though cute and charming, Ms. Davis’s main talents are her piano playing; as an actress, she is utterly overwhelmed — as most would have been — by the silliness of the script, for which Ms. Laloy shares responsibility with Jean-Luc Gaget and Eric Veniard.

Hollywood stopped making this type of self-loathing films some time ago, and you have to wonder why France is still singing this very dull song. By reputation, the French are at it like rabbits; if the current press is to be believed, if they were not seducing their nannies as children, they are having serial affairs as adults. But if two girls get drunk and roll around on the sofa together, it seems the nation recoils in horreur. According to the U.K. distributor, Ms. Laloy originally wanted to cast Laetitia Casta as Emma. Is the idea of French womanhood so wrapped up with a specific sexual identity, that any variant is seen not just a threat to traditional gender roles but also to Frenchness itself? Or did Ms. Laloy decided shock tactics were the best publicity for her first feature? If so, the only shock is how disappointingly reactionary this movie is.


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