Neither sentimentality nor nostalgia for reckless years gone by can be found in Rebecca Zlotowski’s Belle Epine, which makes its tale of teenage rebellion in the face of overwhelming grief fall closer to a sobering character study than a classical youth film. Opening on a strip search of two girls at a local police department, the film quickly asserts the toughness of its heroine, a would-be high schooler named Prudence, played with coiled intensity by the talented Léa Seydoux. They are there for separate crimes, but the girls’ fates seem to be tied from that moment; the deal is sealed when Prudence secretly follows her fellow detainee out and privately swoons over the motorcycles (the swarm of revving motors) that come to pick her up.
This isn’t a moment of sudden awakening. Prudence has been fascinated by a series of television reports on motorcycle clubs and races being held in the southern suburbs of Paris for some time, but her fellow detainee, who introduces herself as Maryline (Agathe Schlencker), promises entry to their quasi-secretive world. In exchange for this, Prudence offers Maryline keys to her house, which has remained largely vacant since Prudence’s mother passed away (under undisclosed circumstances) and her father flew away to grieve alone. Left only to answer to her older sister (Anna Sigalevitch) and her concerned cousin (Anaïs Demoustier), Prudence burrows her way into the motorcycle club’s inner circle by throwing parties, listening to their endless lines of biker stories, opening her mouth for one rider and then her legs for another (Johan Libéreau).
It never becomes perfectly clear what the motorcycles mean to Prudence, whether they are representative of the way her mother died or pose a level of danger that pierces through the steel wool that she has draped over her heart. They certainly seem to be more tantalizing than the lessons of Judaism that her aunt, uncle, and cousins attempt to impart to her sister and her at dinner. The requisite hormonal angst of being a teenager is one dependent on physical rebellion as much as intellectual and compounded with a loss that would shake the most devout believer, the swell of emotions forces Prudence to seek immediate terminus but doesn’t seem to mind if it comes in the form of gradual resolution or outright oblivion.
It’s somewhat disappointing to see Zlotowksi, who wrote the film’s smart and nimble script with Marcia Romano, Gaëlle Macé, and Christophe Mura, leaning so heavily (as so many debuting directors have) on the use of Steadicam, but her compositions are negligibly of her own distinct style and the driving sequences, as scored by techno-composer ROB, are completely immersive. Powered by Ms. Seydoux’s startlingly strong performance, Belle Epine ultimately offers a concluding cathartic moment for Prudence, but it’s not a confessional scene. Even as her stone-wall façade disintegrates into a veil of tears, Prudence retains a large measure of her mystery and we remain unsure as to where exactly she will end up. How exactly this all connects with its current title (which translates roughly to “Beautiful Spine”) is in a similar state of uncertainty, but there’s no mistaking how one might connect the original title, Dear Prudence, to the song that pleads for its eponymous loved one to show her smile one more time.