Magalie Pichon is a force of nature. One of three young women shacking up in a rancid, provincial French hovel in Islid le Besco’s Bas-fonds, the chubby, perennially scowling twentysomething is constantly on the verge of a terrifying explosion. One minute she’s impassively watching an endless series of flickering porn tapes in bed, the next growling out demands in a filthy stream of ear-piercing shrieks or dragging her bottle-blond lover, Barbara (Ginger Romàn), down the hallway of their house and beating her for some indiscretion.
As played by Valérie Nataf, the booze-guzzling leader of the makeshift family is fascinating to watch, but despite the director’s keen eye for detail, le Besco’s film is as much about withholding as it is about revealing. Inculcating the voyeuristic urge, the filmmaker at least partially frustrates its fulfillment through her crisp, elliptical editing often punctuated by fades to black, which ensures that we get just as much information as we need without enough lingering camera gaze to invite gawking. But taken together, the director’s observations quickly accumulate into a portrait of an ultra-marginal semi-hierarchical anti-utopia with Mag as the woman at the top: smoky, slightly surreal shots of the three young women huddled around a makeshift fire fed with pages from a girlie mag, maniacally consuming food from tin cans; a dildo sitting atop the television set, never commented upon; the fact that Mag’s younger sister, Marie-Stef (Noémie le Carrer), is the only character ever seen doing any cleaning.
The already unstable dynamic between the trio becomes terminally upset following a mid-film outbreak of violence in which the three force their way into a bakery at closing time, and after humiliating the owner, wind up shooting him with a rifle and, in a darkly amusing touch, making off with the cash register (not the money in the till, the whole register!). Although this scene is the most sensationalistic in a film with no shortage of potentially sensationalistic moments, le Besco’s quick, cubistic cutting ensures that, while the scene is properly horrifying, we’re not invited to share Mag’s perverse pleasure as she forces the owner to strip and Barbara pours whipped cream on his head. After the heist/murder, Mag begins to reject her former lover and her sister follows suit, as both Marie-Stef and Barbara compete for the alpha woman’s attentions.
Although le Besco is mostly interested in chronicling the dynamic and the daily life of the trio, intimations of both an anterior life and wider yearnings are hinted at and slowly, if partially, revealed. Throughout the film, at regular intervals, we hear a voiceover of a woman offering up various prayers over abstract shots of nature (leafless tree tops, a pool of water). It’s unclear to which of the three women the voice is meant to belong. It may be representative of the collective desires of all three. (In his Film Comment piece on le Besco, critic Scott Foundas suggests that the voiceovers are spoken by the director.) Either way, it seems a bit of stretch to bring God into this particular equation, although, later, hints of a post-imprisonment conversion on Mag’s part go some way toward a retroactive justification.
After the three are arrested, we hear snippets of court testimony from the trial (often communicated in overlapping audio montage), mutedly broadcast over images of the trio sitting in their cells. Again, le Besco smartly elects to withhold even as she gives out information, leaving the viewer with a vague sense of the characters’ longings rather than a round of conventionally explanatory psychology. Perhaps a little more context might have made for a richer work, but the filmmaker is not entirely parsimonious when it comes to meting out backstory. In a moment of directorial generosity, le Besco gives us a vibrantly colored flashback of Mag and Barbara’s first meeting at a dance club. “I hadn’t been in love with a girl before,” Barbara recalls, but when she sees Mag gyrating away in her jean shorts with her belly sticking out, oblivious to any objections from the well-groomed crowd, she’s instantly drawn to her, as if to a more vital form of humanity. That this initial meeting ultimately results in domestic violence, betrayal, and murder doesn’t matter. As le Besco fills the screen with glowing faces and bodies twirling under a flickering strobe light, happiness, for one brief moment, seems a genuine possibility.
Bas-fonds will play on February 18 and 19 as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects series. To purchase tickets, click here.