A delightful but lightweight synthesis of Jacques Demy and the Dardenne brothers, with a dash of Jena-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Tout va Bien thrown in for good measure, Paul Calori and Kostia Testut’s Footnotes is a whimsical musical about the travails of the working class. Featuring songs about lousy jobs, worker organizing, and dreams of a better life, the film centers on a young and strong-willed proletarian woman, Julie (Pauline Etienne), who suggests a slightly older incarnation of Rosetta’s protagonist. After being unceremoniously fired from her job in a shoe store, Julie applies to every ad in the classifieds before being offered a golden opportunity: a permanent position at a designer shoe factory.
It’s at this point that Julie breaks into the film’s first song, a tinkly ballad that evokes that feeling of ecstatic relief that anyone who’s ever landed a job after long unemployment will relate to. Written in a tinkly register similar to that of Justin Hurwitz’s compositions for La La Land, the tune, like most of the songs in this film, is pleasant but not exactly memorable, while the choreography is performed with a charming amateurishness. Unlike the classic Hollywood musicals of Stanley Donen and Vincente Minnelli, which achieve an air of effervescent effortlessness, Footnotes lets the viewer see the proverbial strings. While the performances are never less than competent, they’re also not so seamless that we forget that we’re watching human beings—workers—performing complicated choreography for the audience’s amusement.
This emphasis on the performers’ labor underlines the film’s narrative emphasis on the dignity of work. Because no sooner has Julie landed her new job than she becomes embroiled in a labor dispute pitting the stitchers against the company’s unctuous owner, Xavier Laurent (Loïc Corbery), who wants to move the factory to China. To preserve their jobs, the women ultimately seize the means of production, taking control of the factory and reviving one of the company’s old designs, a flat-soled but feminine design that comes only in red—“the color of blood and revolt,” as one character describes it via song. Calori and Testut proffer an unapologetically idealistic vision of worker cooperatives and feminist labor solidarity, two subjects not commonly associated with musicals but which actually gel quite naturally with the utopianism and collaborative spirit at the heart of the genre. The result is perhaps the breeziest take on labor relations in cinematic history.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers eventually lose their nerve in a denouement that favors Julie’s tentative relationship with a truck driver (Olivier Chatreau) over her well-established independence and camaraderie with her fellow workers. The ending cheapens the character and weakens the film’s commitment to the importance of workplace organizing. It’s a disappointingly familiar finale to a film that otherwise takes such delight in putting a politically conscious spin on a venerable genre.