Jean-Luc Godard famously said that cinema was the “history of boys photographing girls.” In the case of French director Benoit Jacquot, it might be more accurate to say that his cinema is the history of photographing one particular girl: Islid Le Besco.
Le Besco was 18 when she starred as a pliant pupil to Daniel Auteil‘s title character in Jacquot’s Sade (2000), and the pair also collaborated on the vivid, enigmatic drama L’Intouchable (2007) and the sensual period piece Deep in the Woods (2010). But Jacquot’s cinematographic fixations on his muse (and former girlfriend) were never more ardent than in 2004’s A tout de suite, which cast her as Lili, a disinterested art student in 1970s Paris who becomes smitten with a dashing, dangerous young man (Ouassini Embarek).
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There’s a plot in A toute de suite, but the narrative machinations — which involve criminal activities and clandestine border crossings from France to Spain to Morocco to Greece — are subordinate to the attention Jacquot lavishes on his ingenue’s visage. J. Hoberman, senior film critic for The Village Voice, correctly noted that Le Besco has “the face of someone woken from a thousand year slumber,” which is the ideal appearance for a girl whose dreamy notions of adolescent attraction get a rough shake on the shoulder. As Lily sinks deeper over her head into illegal activities, it’s easy to assume that she’s being punished for the guiltless sin of love at first sight. But her strangely mesmerized passivity in the face of adversity, and, later, abjection, seems to be the point of the film rather than than a conseqence of lazy screenwriting.
A clue to Jacquot’s intentions may lie in his aesthetic, which liberally references the black-and-white images (and shades of grey content) of various pioneering French New Wave films. A toute de suite may begin a bit like Breathless — with an enigmatic woman in thrall to a gangster — but its existential thrust is more in line with Vivre sa vie. Jacquot’s awed but contradictory regard of Le Besco as feckless angel and anguished victim mirrors Godard’s deployment of his wife Anna Karina in Vivre. In both cases, it’s hard to tell whether the director empathizes with his heroine, exploits her situation, or both — a paradox contradicted by our knowledge of their off-screen relationship.
A Tout de suite isn’t a major work on the order of Vivre sa vie, but it’s arguably the key film in Jacquot’s ever-evolving oeuvre, addressing his perennial concerns — chiefly, the mystery of sexual attraction — while also clarifying and crystallizing his New Wave influences. The film is also the most iconic performance to date for Le Besco, who has become a formidable filmmaker in her own right with Bas-Fonds (2010) a considerably more grotesque portrait of youthful indiscretion.
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Adam Nayman is a film critic for Eye Weekly in Toronto. He is also a regular contributor to Cinema Scope.