Close Encounters with a Blurred Mind; Considering "She's One of Us"
by Michael Joshua Rowin, with responses from Jeff Reichert and Michael Koresky
[indieWIRE's weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot.]
What to do with a film as formally daring, visually arresting, and irretrievably muddled as "She's One of Us"? You'd have to be pretty unadventurous not to follow director Siegrid Alnoy into the postmodern environment of moral questioning she conjures in her audacious feature-length debut. But it's impossible to ignore the hollow platitudes lurking beneath the film's glossy, quasi-experimental exterior. The "she" of the title is Christine Blanc (as in white, or "blank," get it?), a lucidly aware if oddly disconnected temp. Looking to belong in a world in which she serves as thankless understudy, Christine (a dull Sasha Andres) fumblingly attempts to befriend Patricia (Catherine Mouchet), her temp agency contact. In order to feign relative normality, Christine parrots overheard conversations and even adopts Patricia's porcelain owl- collecting hobby as an entrée to friendship. Yet she commits a major faux pas when she snaps and violently kills Patricia at an indoor swimming pool in a scene which rivals late Bergman for blood-curdling screams. According to the logic of every single ironic existential narrative, the character's moral nadir must coincide with material fulfillment, and right on schedule Christine is soon accepted into society with a permanent job and new friends.
"She's One of Us" immediately establishes an unceasing hallucinatory aesthetic that shoves the viewer into Christine's world of barren emotion: sinuous camera movements, off-kilter compositions, pronounced usage of reflections and mirrors, elliptical editing and unorthodox modulations in focus and lighting that emphasize the unreality of streamlined corporate architecture. The sound mix is actually the most radical element of the film, abruptly and dramatically switching from rumbling ambient noise to silence and then back again, all within a few exhilarating seconds. Sound designer Gabriel Scotti deserves mention for creating a unique soundscape in which running water, rustling trees, and panting breaths are amplified to the point of discomfort. But while the film initially accomplishes the intended effect of rendering palpable Christine's heightened subjectivity, it soon settles into a rote exercise. Unlike Michel Gondry, Alnoy never seems to know when to hold back in order to achieve pace or concentrate on minute details. Few films (I'm particularly thinking of "Natural Born Killers") can pull off immersing the viewer in a relentless stream of kinesis and disorientation. "She's One of Us" misses the cut.
"She's One of Us" so desperately wants us -- needs us -- to see the vapidity of capitalist society's products and living centers (the homogeneous supermarket makes a mandatory appearance, as does the local shopping mall) that every shot screams "Isolation!" with all the subtlety of "One Hour Photo." The film sinks into self-parody -- and contrived commentary -- when it becomes evident that Christine's redemption lays not only in nature (yes, the Rhone valley is indeed gorgeous) but also in a guardian angel in the form of an adorable, casually-attired intern who constantly trails her. After endlessly parading gloomy tableaux of soul-deadened automatons dispassionately looking out into the void, Alnoy hits the viewer with an infuriating conclusion: all along Christine's regained humanity was waiting to find expression in that sugariest of clichés -- the belted-out pop singalong, from within a car, no less.
Alnoy might be given the benefit of the doubt as a first-time feature-length director overeager to say everything all at once. But the film's failure to poignantly, or even originally, convey workplace ennui is the most disappointing of its missed opportunities. Anyone can film antiseptic, fluorescent interiors and deem the result an investigation into the "wasteland" of contemporary culture -- it takes a real eye to transcend the mundane. There's a scene in Mike Judge's "Office Space" where an entire workplace sings "Happy Birthday" to a colleague so half-heartedly that they hilariously look and sound lobotomized. This simple moment, equally absurd and pathetic, expresses more about corporate dehumanization and social conformity than all of the drab posturing of "She's One of Us."
[ Michael Joshua Rowin is a staff writer at Reverse Shot, has written for the Indypendent, Film Comment, and runs the blog, Hopeless Abandon. ]
by Jeff Reichert
"She's One of Us" is a film easier to appreciate than it is to love, though given the sterile clinician's eye which director Siegrid Alnoy applies to her subject, I'm not sure that she'd necessarily view this observation as a backhanded compliment. I admire her willingness to put the camera in places you wouldn't expect (most wondrously shooting through frosted glass so that its protagonist Christine literally fades to white), and to cut abruptly to lovely, empty, pillow shots of mountains, driving, and buildings where further dialogue would be unnecessary.
But this interest in pure visuality does run with certain risks, and the film's occasionally too Gursky-esque frames rehash the familiar anticapitalist arguments: Too much! Too anonymous! Too identical! Her decision to loop a repetitive techno beat underneath the first fifteen minutes of the film pays similar dividends -- it's easy to appreciate the radical intentions behind the gesture without finding it wholly successful. But so it often goes with first films. Just finding a young filmmaker willing to shun convention who is also able to sustain a mood and pair it with some semblance of an inquiry over the course of a feature is practically a revelation. And that this feature puts us in such close quarters with a character who should be unpleasantly familiar to anyone who's worked in an office, yet remains compelling and empathetic, marks Alnoy as a filmmaker worthy of attention.
[ Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He is currently employed as Director of Marketing and Publicity for Magnolia Pictures and co-director of the Providence French Film Festival. ]
by Michael Koresky
It's easy to reduce the hypnotic "She's One of Us" by dumping it into the genre subset of "workplace dehumanization films," but Siegrid Alnoy's precariously erected debut is deceptive. Its visual signifiers of alienation and conformity may seem reminiscent of sketches from well-trod territory, yet its classically existential concerns evoke Camus more than Antonioni, its frame more attuned to the tougher questions of identity than self-involved angst. Alnoy's constantly descending and undulating camera can't truly express detachment because the intention seems to be to exhilarate rather than confound; so joyous is the film's constant flow of visual and aural revelations that its ultimate effect is of stimulation rather than disconnect. Perhaps Christine Blanc is indeed connected -- to the shifting spasms of contemporary self-definition, plugged into a binge-and-purge approach to spiritual fulfillment: porcelain owl-collecting to impress potential new friends, passing her auto exam, maintaining a comfortably unexceptional relationship with a male coworker.
In a limited world in which the emergence into self-worth is hearkened by the procuring of a driver's license, then how to truly assert one's humanity? Alnoy's rush of eerie imagery, admittedly overwrought yet compellingly so, audaciously quotes both "The Stranger" and "Crime and Punishment," still having the good sense to remain an elusive spectator to those authors' more desperate inquiries. When Christine's coworkers are toasting the magnitude of her recent passing grade at the auto school, they begin to chant the French barroom standard "Elle est des notres" ("She's One of Us") creepy in its conformist implications; Bach suddenly engorges the soundtrack, drowning out the false cheers of the revelers, and then finally the sound and picture zap out, creating an awkward moment of dead screentime. The burden of acceptance is sometimes too heavy.
[ Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well as the assistant editor and frequent contributor of Film Comment. ]