NYFF '99 REVIEW: "Set Me Free" Paints Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl
by Ray Pride
Léa Pool's graceful, dear "Set Me Free" ("Emporte-moi") is that rare film that remembers that feelings are also about touch. Exquisitely tactile, its images begin in the airless blue swim of watery depths. Can you hold your breath until you are an adult?
Acquired by Merchant-Ivory Productions, Pool's sixth feature is reminiscent of their sorrowfully underappreciated "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries." It's a gentle, cumulative picture of "almost" 14-year-old Hanna (Karine Vanasse), but also a portrait of the artist as a young girl, an unformed creature as likely to be influenced by a lost pup as by repeated viewings of Godard's "Vivre sa vie." (While we're at it, there's a gentle hint of the blank slate of a girl in Bresson's "Mouchette" as well.)
Vanasse's gift starts with her expressive face: her fleet dimples are part and parcel of the sort of beauty that almost invariably rests beneath a superficial mousiness. Inside is a glow, a mind, a future artist. Pool loves to frame Vanasse's face at acute angles (sometimes sharing space with similarly positioned faces of others), photographing her like a young, gamin Falconetti (from Dreyer's "Joan of Arc").
Hanna becomes fixated on Anna Karina, the ill-fated, eager-to-dance, bangs-wearing, philosophy-spouting whore of that "Vivre." She watches it again, again, and we see many clips through the film, as Hanna identifies with the character's search for identity, her brooding moods, her willingness to jump up and dance when the whim strikes her.
Godard's movies no longer make it into the tidily programmed New York Film Festival, yet it's keen that his influence lingers in this overt homage. Hanna beams at the thought of another visit to Karina's church, imagining herself with her friends in a pool hall doing the actress' ya-ya dance to the music in her head. The references are less cinephilic than the sheer joy of image, first discovered by a character moist with the sensations of autobiography. It's right that Hanna says she's "almost 14" -- she's at an age where you don't have an age, but always an "almost."
Her father's a bohemian, but mom's tethered to her job. It doesn't make for neat or harmonious living. Chain-smoking, chess-obsessed father Miki Manojlovic ("Black Cat, White Cat"), with his fallen spaniel's visage, is an unsuccessful poet, an expatriate Polish Jew and "citizen of nowhere," who forces fragile Catholic wife Pascal Bussières to type up his lines after long days at a sweatshop. (She suffers the fatigue of the chronically unloved.) It's a beaten-down city, industrial and poor. We move through the common architecture inside and out in old Montréal, yet Pool is attuned to life's complexities as well.
As a director, she understands how to align the poetic with concrete sensations. Under Pool's directing credit, we see Vanasse's fresh, free smile as a luminous revelation as she hugs a motorcyclist she's hitchhiking with, cheek pressed to his shoulder blades.
Pool's sweet achievement is that she makes no especial stress on any development in the film. The rush of images and emotions is parceled out in tender vignettes. It's such a change from the "teen-und-drang" of the run-of-the-mill coming-of-rage picture. At the end, when, like a writer given a pen, Hanna is given her first key-cranked 8mm camera, we know she is a filmmaker. Godard may say a woman is a woman, but according to Pool, a girl is a filmmaker, waiting to happen. All is formative, alive with promise and sensation. The 1960s francophone pop, including Jennifer Charles' version of Serge Gainsbourg's "Les amours perdu" is particularly well used.
[Ray Pride is a contributing editor to FILMMAKER Magazine and longtime film critic for Chicago's Newcity. He writes about movies and the industry for many other publications, and is also a screenwriter and filmmaker.]