It’s been a good year for French film, and a remarkable one for French female leads. Charlotte Gainsbourg portrayed a self-diagnosed sex addict and failed mother in Lars Von Trier’s two-part epic Nymphomaniac; critics loved Juliette Binoche as an aging actress in Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria; and, perhaps most interestingly, we now have Angelique Litzenburger boldly playing herself in the unflattering role of an elderly exotic bar hostess in Marie Amachoukeli’s Party Girl.
There is something deeply satisfying about watching this increasing number of complicated female protagonists. They are often dark, sometimes depressing, even dislikeable representations. But they are not pathetic. Nor are they melodramatic devices. These are characters that face all the “difficulties” of womanhood, yet also challenge the viewer’s notions of female aging by refusing to apologize for it.
A former exotic dancer, Angelique now works as a bar hostess in a cabaret-style nightclub. When she pays a visit to a previously loyal client, Michel, who has stopped coming to the nightclub, he reveals that he wants a real relationship with her, one that doesn’t involve financial transactions. Both her actual family and her “second family” of dancers and co-workers advise against settling down with Michel, but Angelique is struggling anyway with the idea of losing her cherished autonomy. (Though the warnings and concerns expressed by her loved ones are genuine enough, it’s clear that, regardless of her choices, Angelique has unconditional support from them.)
Litzenburger is both the protagonist of this partially biographical film, and the real life mother of co-director Samuel Theis (who also stars as her son, Sam.) The cinema verité visual style also lends itself to a docu-drama feel and the result is a wonderfully unique sense intimacy. The actors don’t look like professionals, yet they come across as utterly convincing.
The directors do a remarkable job of interlacing dark nightclub montages which are alienating and anonymous, with subtle scenes of bonding between Angelique and her children. This is the harmony that Angelique strives for. She longs to preserve the mystery and excitement of cabaret, yet she also wants to remain a good mother. And while the fact that she can’t leave the party life behind may affect her ability to commit to a potential husband, it doesn’t hinder her maternal instincts. In fact, though she often struggles with the pressure from her kids, she never succumbs to, or even responds to, that coming from Michel. When he orders her to stop smoking in the house, she tells him off. When she wants to stay out longer, she goes to the bar without him. And when she doesn’t want to have sex with him, she doesn’t.
Litzenburger gives an unforgettable performance, but her appearance – heavy on the eye make-up, leopard print, and baby-pink velour – is just as remarkable. She owns her image, indifferent to how age-inappropriate it might be. Yet her face is also strangely soft and disarming, with its warm smile and compassionate eyes.
Though Angelique has indeed faced adversity in her past, this is not the focus of Party Girl. There’s no attempt to punish her for her louche lifestyle and constant drinking. It all ends with that eponymous song playing in the background, a fitting tribute to this unique representation of a woman who chooses to live her life by her own moral standards.
An avid film-goer and passionate cook, Maxine Napier Macdonald received a BA in cultural studies from McGill University last spring.