Down By Love (Éperdument)

France (2016) Dir. Pierre Godeau

It’s interesting that prison films involving male inmates usually focus on the violence and the struggle to survive in such harsh surroundings; films set in female prisons tend to follow more of an exploitation agenda. By the very nature of its plot, Down By Love is barely innocent in that regard bit, except that the spicy stuff is not between a same sex couple.

The story is inspired by the case of Sorour Arbabzadeh, a young woman prisoner who seduced the warden, Florent Goncalves. Arbabzadeh is represented here by Anna Amari (Adèle Exarchopoulos), incarcerated whilst awaiting trial for an undisclosed crime, catching the eye of Gonclave’s opposite number, married prison director Jean Firmino (Guillaume Gallienne).

A gradual mutual attraction develops as Firmino gives Anna cosy jobs in the prison, contacting her via a contraband mobile phone. The affair begins and consumes both but it doesn’t go unnoticed by others at the prison on both sides of the legal fence, while the effects are felt by Firmino’s wife Elise (Stéphanie Cléau) and their nine year-old daughter Louise (Aliénor Poisson).

Éperdument translates into English as “madly” or “desperately”, superficially more ambiguous than its equally deceptive choice of replacement for the English speaking market. Down By Love seems to promise a straight up romance story rather than a gritty prison drama, although we don’t exactly get that either, so what exactly does it deliver?

This is part of the issue with this second film from Pierre Godeau – it wants to eschew the flowery sentiments of an illicit romance but its glossy production values won’t allow it to; conversely there is not enough of the dangerous purview of prison life to build up any reason for Anna to use the affair as a means of an easier life, extending to the jealousy and spite engendered within the other inmates which is only briefly touched on as a convenient plot point.

Because Anna’s crime isn’t disclosed or even mentioned in passing, we have no idea just how dangerous she can be. It is alluded that she has a reputation and later in the film it is revealed she has earned the nickname “Warden’s Pet”, but this could just as easily be a reflection on her willingness to keep her nose clean and not because she is a serial succubus, we don’t know.

Godeau attempts to establish the tough world of prison life, with Anna being jeered and propositioned with sexual taunts upon her arrival and her new cellmates giving her a less than warm welcome. Barely ten minutes into the film and she has her first (and only) fight in the exercise yard with the resident troublemaker, showing her mettle and aggressive side, offering a promising if typical teaser for the rest of the film.

But when hipster warden enters the scene the direction the story takes becomes immediately obvious. At 39, turning 40 later in the film, Firmino shows no concern in hiding his interest in Anna, a fault of the lazy scripting than a personality flaw, while Adèle Exarchopoulos is so naturally attractive compared to the other women, her role as the love interest is blatant from the first frame.

As mentioned above, hardly any of the other inmates show any animosity to the preferential treatment Anna receives, despite being aware, which ordinarily would be the hub of the drama. This conflict of interest may well be a path well trodden but Godeau has the constituent elements to make something fresh and compelling from them, yet seems more intent on focusing on the sexual aspect instead.

Granted this isn’t a wall-to-wall bonk fest but it is not lacking on the fornication front either which should appeal to the horn dogs in the audience. The scenes are brief but they are portrayed as passionate and mutually rewarding for our clandestine canoodlers, possibly even suggesting that a genuine love is forming.

Unfortunately the messages are confusing as Anna is hot one minute and cold the next, including a suicide attempt when Firmino spends Christmas with his family, a relationship already strained due to his sudden increased dedication to work. When Elise gets a job teaching art at the prison, Anna volunteers to model, undressing because she knew Firmino is watching. That night Elise strips off because she thought hubby would appreciate it, based on his reaction to Anna’s nudity.

Aside from an enigmatic ending, this story plays out as you might expect it to, robbing it of any intrigue and suspense, again a result of lazy writing. If this because they have followed the real life events of the Goncalves – Arbabzadeh affair then fair enough but even the most complete stories warrants some dramatic licence to make it palatable for a film audience. While nothing is inherently wrong with what Godeau has given us, it is lacking inspiration and emotional substance the story demands.

What aren’t lacking are the performances. Adèle Exarchopoulos is no stranger to saucy romps with Blue Is The Warmest Colour to her credit, and should be concerned she doesn’t get type cast due to her willingness to strip off. Yet as Anna she shows unequivocally she has the dramatic chops to carry a film, emoting on many levels in bringing out surprise vulnerability in this otherwise canny jailbird.

Guillaume Gallienne has a smarminess about his appearance which suits the role of Firmino and while the script may expediate his infatuation with Anna in record time, the change is at least credible in Gallienne’s able hands. Godeau has an eye for a shot composition but rarely demonstrates it, keeping his direction rather safe and textbook, except – quelle surprise – during the racier moments.

The potential and aspirations of Down By Love are plain to see but Godeau doesn’t have the confidence to explore them to their fullest, the two leads giving everything by way of compensating for the flawed scripting. A passably distracting effort but not a substantial one given the prime ingredients available.


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