[Editor's Note: Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) is partnering with the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) to highlight the films in IFFR's prestigious VPRO Tiger Awards competition (given to first- or second-time filmmakers). A weeklong series, encompassing 15 films, as well as a "shorts" program, Rotterdam @ BAM gives New Yorkers (and New York's close neighbors) an unprecedented opportunity to take a look at these award-winning films from all over the world.]
La Vie au Ranch, a debut feature by Sophie Letourneur, is the story of a group of young college-age girls living pig-piled in an apartment on the Left Bank in Paris that they call "the Ranch." Life is one long party interspersed with writing intellectual papers last-minute for Sociology class. There is no story here, not really. It is a group character study filmed in an improvisatory way. Moments feel "caught" rather than planned. I am not sure if there was a set script (most of the scenes are group scenes, with everyone talking at once), but whether or no, there are some very funny lines. A hung-over guy, lying on a mattress at "the Ranch", the morning after a crazy rave, wakes up and announces, "I need an Alka Seltzer. I feel like I'm speaking German." The group of actors has a totally unselfconscious dynamic with one another, and while the film doesn't have much substance (nothing really happens), I found myself very moved by it. It is an accurate and affectionate portrait of that precarious time in a young person's life (in this case, young girls) when you can still get away with acting silly and immature, but at the same time, the adult world is starting to call to you. You start to want to, you know, make choices. But what choice? If you make one choice, does that mean other choices will be closed to you? And, most importantly to a 20-year-old girl, what will this do to the group? The group is paramount. People pour from party to rave to Ranch in a huge hilarious group, and the beginning scenes of the film are filled with people wondering loudly where everyone else is. "Where's Pam?" "Where's Manon?" "Where's Raffy?" People wake up the next morning and want to know where everyone is. Who stayed over? Did anyone get laid? Let's all get back together again and have some breakfast!
Adults grow out of codependent friendships such as the ones portrayed in La Vie au Ranch, and Letourneur depicts that transitory moment—the bridge, so to speak. The film, refreshingly, does not judge its young characters for their immaturity. It accepts it. The film is a slice of life, gorgeously shot, with a great eye for the quirks of humanity and the comedy in everyday moments. Nothing feels "acted". One girl, in the middle of a raucous party, holds out a blender to her friends: "This is a cocktail I just made up. It's gluten-free and organic." One of the guys is overheard saying to his friend, irritated, "You just don't understand the power of Faulkner." Serious-faced young men sit at outdoor cafes and say things like, "I am totally in love with Maggie Cheung." Letourneur is obviously poking gently at serious young people, but her sense of fun and fondness for them keeps it from being vicious.
Some of the scenes meander on too long, where all we appear to be looking at is girls dancing around to blasting music, and many scenes have no narrative "point," but on the flip side, La Vie au Ranch makes no pretense at being anything more than what it is. I enjoyed that. I enjoyed that it wasn't top-heavy with imposed themes. The content doesn't warrant it. Basically, I liked spending time with these people. They were funny, crazy, human, and trying to grow up.
There is a scene when girls go on a hike together in the countryside. Two of them are bored out of their minds and don't try to hide it. They lag behind, texting their boyfriends back in the city, sulking, trying to light their cigarettes, huddled against the wind. Manon, the girl who planned the hike, is annoyed. They are ruining her good time. One of the other girls disagrees and says, "Manon, maybe this isn't fun for them. They are bored. They are being honest. Friends need to be honest about things. So they're not having fun, so what?"
Letourneur, in that subtle scene, shows her understanding of the intense communality of female friendships and how part of growing up is learning to break free from that codependence. Loosen the bonds. Be individuals. It's okay. Your friendship, if strong enough, will weather the storm of separation.
I loved La Vie au Ranch because it resisted the pull of a grand catharsis or some dramatic defining event, which would have lessened it, made it cliché. Instead, we relax and follow these girls around at such an intimate angle that by the end, we know them, their rhythms, quirks, flaws, humor. This is easier said than done, and Letourneur appears to have a gift of setting up various scenarios (a girl calling a boy she just met, as her friends cackle hilariously in the background) and then getting out of the way to see where her actors might take it.
La Vie au Ranch screens Tuesday, March 9th at 6:50pm. Click here for more information.
Sheila O'Malley blogs about film, literature, photography and life at The Sheila Variations.