Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s My Friend Victoria, an unremarkable adaptation of the short story Victoria and the Staveneys by Doris Lessing, disappoints in its refusal to allow for deeper articulations of racism beyond, well, visible and verbal displays of racism. Even as potentially subtle critiques emerge, like when Victoria (Guslagie Malanga), a black French woman, spots a piece of African art hanging on the bathroom wall of white hook-up Thomas’s (Pierre Andrau) home, it’s a moment lifted from another film—Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl—made over 50 years ago. Were Civeyrac out to recast the terms of Sembène’s tragedy in relation to contemporary French race relations, the scene could be a nod to its forebear and a starting point for broaching further, carefully considered terrain. Instead, My Friend Victoria lurches forward with all of the hokey sincerity that its un-ironic title suggests, barely maintaining a pulse as expected dramaturgical conflicts regarding both parenting and generational divide are explicitly, if dutifully, addressed.
The story opens with Victoria and her friend, Fanny (Nadia Moussa), accompanying a pair of children through a Parisian park. After a clunky bit of exposition revealing Fanny as our narrator, the film jumps nearly two decades into the past as Victoria, as an eight-year-old orphan, is taken in by the Savinet family, whose bourgeois home Victoria becomes quickly obsessed with. But rather than explore childhood desire or the ways a search for belonging can drive children to take potentially dangerous risks, Civeyrac gives all insights to Fanny, who explains Victoria’s joys and frustrations in straightforward terms, leaving little room for ambiguity. The explications are so leaden that one might be tempted to read Fanny as an unreliable narrator, banally detailing Victoria’s plight when it clearly runs much deeper, but Civeyrac consistently uses her voiceover to flesh out Victoria’s psychology. As such, it becomes a requisite rather than exploratory narrative element.
Once grown, Victoria tries her hand at odd jobs, including a clerk in a record shop, in which she spots Thomas, who she last saw as a young boy in the Savinet home. Victoria pursues him, transparently offering CDs recommendations in hopes he’ll ask her out. While the scene recalls Vivre Sa Vie for its combination of a single woman’s romantic inclinations intermingled with innocuous record-store chatter, the film fails to charge the proceedings beyond connecting the dots between Victoria’s life events. Any number of questions arise: Is Victoria pursuing Thomas because she’s attempting to reclaim a lost childhood? How do Victoria’s sexual energies relate to her conception of self as a Parisian woman? Civeyrac passes on these potentially harder questions by deploying vague assertions of cultural difference, as when young Victoria focuses on a televised, blackface routine. Civeyrac understands identify in wholly binary terms, as if one’s image of self can be explained purely through refracted cultural formations.
The film’s second half, as Victoria begins a relationship with Sam (Tony Harrisson), a black musician, presents several risible moments. When the couple walks down a street, a passerby shouts, “Move, niggers!”—to which Sam responds by pursuing and repeatedly punching the man. Civeyrac opts for arbitrary, violent confrontation without properly contextualizing its significance within the larger scope of the film or exploring harder truths about systemic racism against African émigrés. Additionally, the film’s consistently swelling orchestral score suggests potentially melodramatic inclinations, but Civeyrac stages scenes as if they’re meant to be aesthetically realist in tenor. In a most cringeworthy moment, Thomas says, “What France does in Africa is horrible,” to seal the deal with Victoria, but Civeyrac, instead of locating Victoria’s response in her facial expression, body language, or a line of dialogue, merely moves onto the next scene. Underlying My Friend Victoria is a potentially rich film on the ways liberalism, even when it purports to possess empathy, can be exploited for sexual and social gain.