"Party Girl" sports a trio of directing credits, for French newcomers Marie Amachoukeli, Claire Burger and Samuel Theis, suggesting a combined effort with scale to match. But that perception belies a resolutely small production exclusively based around the appeal of its real life lead. Amateur actress Angélique Litzenburger stars as a fictionalized version of herself, playing a 60-year-old bar hostess and cabaret performer stuck in the same cycle of recklessness that has weighed down on her for the duration of her life. Though never entirely the sum of its parts, "Party Girl" delivers a gentle, somber portrait of the aging process that's consistently believable precisely because not much happens.
"I was a superstar," Angélique says to her co-workers at the bar, but throughout the movie that may as well serve as her mantra. The grimy venue where she spends her working hours, a dimly lit enclave equipped with a stripper pole and blaring music, illustrates the limited possibilities that define her existence. That seems to change when her only client still enamored of her after so many years, Michel (Joseph Bour), professes his love to her and eventually proposes marriage. Amused by the suggestion, she hesitantly takes him up on the offer, while still drifting through the ghosts of her messy past.
The situation is complicated by the arrival of her adult offspring—played by the actress' actual kids—whose optimism over the prospects of her newfound romance hint at the multiple challenges she has faced in the past, particularly once she admits to Michel that she's uncertain about the identity of their father.
Shot in an intimate, handheld style, "Party Girl" features Angélique in every scene as she drifts from tame family encounters and the sanctuary of her employment, which constantly threatens to collapse on her. While never uniformly compelling as a narrative, its snapshot approach takes direction from Angélique's crestfallen gaze. With hints of Cassavetes-level naturalism, the movie drifts through her world, drawing out the way her constant refrains and bursts of energy provide a defense mechanism for confronting the pressure to put her life together. Litzenburger is a mesmerizing presence whose lined face implies a lengthy timeline of sorrows hardly fleshed out beyond than the general idea provided by the title. But that's pretty much all we need to understand her conundrum.
Faced with turning these individual moments into a satisfactory plot, "Party Girl" struggles to find enough developments to pull the whole thing together. Even so, with its strikingly credible performance at its center, the movie manages to hit a resoundingly sad note without overplaying it.
The slow build reaches a satisfying payoff in its tender climax, when unstated hesitations finally surface, and Angélique confronts her most challenging tendencies. The directors, however, avoid wallowing in her grief—much like the character, who finds solace in bright lights and superficial good cheer. As the eponymous song by the band Chinawoman plays over the credits, the lyrics intersperse a celebratory spirit with one aside that says it all: "Nobody knows/about my broken heart." That's the essence of the conundrum facing the movie's dispirited lead.
"Party Girl" premieres this week as opening night entry of the Un Certain Regard sidebar of the Cannes Film Festival. It does not yet have U.S. distribution.