For most people, the late capitalistic demand for employees to go full automaton at the start of every shift — to smother their own humanity under a membrane of cheap uniforms, fake smiles, and heartless corporate jargon — is something of a turnoff. For Cassandre (Adèle Exarchopoulos), the stone-faced heroine of Julie Lecoustre and Emmanuel Marre’s fly-by-night travelogue “Zero Fucks Given,” the requirement to gate-check her emotions is the entire reason she decided to become a Wing Airlines flight attendant in the first place.
A pretty but withdrawn Belgian twentysomething who totally lost her bearings before she even had a chance to leave home, Cassandre looked to the sky for escape after her mom died in a car accident, and she found it in the purgatorial solace of a pressurized cabin, where the entire world is rolled up into a metal tube that’s much too small for comfort (especially when flying on the cramped low-budget carrier that sends her puddle-skipping across Western Europe and the Canary Islands).
Now she lives suspended in the space between places.
Every day Cassandre lands in a different country; every night she goes out with a different crew; and every morning she wakes up with a different Tinder date. There is no continuity to her existence. Instead of a home, she has a base of operations. Instead of experiences, she has Instagram posts — she even has to check their timestamps just to remember how long she’s been up in the air. It’s the dreamlife of someone who’s trying to will the dislocation of the modern world into a feature instead of a bug; someone who’s trying to find solace in the same desolation she feels whenever her feet touch the ground.
“Zero Fucks Given” explores its heroine’s head-in-the-clouds state of mind with low-altitude pretensions. Despite adhering to the same broad storyline of Jason Reitman’s smirking and stainless “Up in the Air” — a peripatetic flier with no interest in changing their lifestyle readjusts their approach to takeoffs and landings, so that it feels as if they’re going somewhere rather than running away from somewhere else — Lecoustre and Marre’s hypnotic feature debut is richer and more textured for how it sees that lifestyle through the eyes of a crew member instead of a passenger.
Surrounding Exarchopoulos with non-professional actors (Cassandre’s colleagues have been cast with actual flight attendants, while her grieving father is convincingly played by producer Alexandre Perrier), editing her adventures into a fragmented slipstream that makes it seem like Cassandre is everywhere and nowhere all at once, and following her through airports, galleys, and nightclubs with the kind of hyper-real camerawork that lives up to the movie’s title, “Zero Fucks Given” shimmers along with a workaday indifference that belies the world’s most exotic customer service job. The elliptical first hour of this naturally meandering film is almost entirely carried by the rhythms of low-wage labor; by a vivid understanding of how work fights to fill every silence in our lives, and to snuff out the sound of our own thoughts.
To a certain extent, Cassandre is all too happy to surrender. She’s always eager to put on her uniform, apply enough makeup to perform in a Broadway show, and disappear into her part. Exarchopoulos is so attuned to the character’s solace that you can see her shoulders relax whenever the “ding!” cues flight attendants to embrace their roles and begin cabin service; her splendidly realized performance understands that someone can seek refuge in their job without being fulfilled by the work. Cassandre barricades herself behind the gig on the ground, as well — one telling scene finds the camera trained on a young passenger’s face as the protagonist’s disembodied voice mercilessly ignores the girl’s desperate pleas to fit her on a flight.
Later that night (or is it the night before? Or another week entirely?), Cassandre does ecstasy with a male co-worker until the drugs start to wear off and a sky-high conversation about animal nipples plummets into a sudden heart-to-heart about their dead and dying mothers. You can practically hear the warning lights flashing behind her eyes. Cassandre doesn’t mind being cold, or that even her favorite hook-ups are reduced to what Tyler Durden might refer to as “single-serving friends.” Cassandre just wants to keep her head above the clouds, and if submitting herself to the overreach of capitalism is the best way to stay there? Great. That’s why it’s such a betrayal when her telecom company badgers her about paying her late mother’s wireless bill. And why, around the halfway point of the film, the promotion Cassandre is forced to accept sends her into a tailspin. She can’t have zero fucks to give when a team of people are reporting to her.
Flight attendants are inherently compelling figures (they’re servers who deal with the world’s smallest tables, and close-up actors who perform on the world’s most hostile stage, and seeing them wait for their rides at the airport after a show makes it impossible not to wonder who they become between flights), and the first section of “Zero Fucks Given” offers a well-observed peek behind the curtain. The second part, which grounds Cassandre with her family in Brussels and finds her indefinitely delayed in the very place she became a flight attendant to fly over, requires a bit more acclimatization.
The movie’s fragmented approach makes it hard to appreciate the unique effect that Cassandre’s father and sister have on her psyche, and Lecoustre and Marre’s semi-improvised script airs on the side of being cryptic to the point that crucial scenes are spent trying to decode the basic facts of what’s happening between the members of this family. “Zero Fucks Given” is refreshingly unwilling to be prescriptive or teach Cassandre any moral lessons, but it often struggles to crystallize how she finds the strength to seize control over her own flightplan.
If that can be exasperating, it isn’t always; a couplet of moving and unusually long scenes towards the end mine a sense of growth by subverting the movie’s staccato rhythm, and Exarchopoulos punctuates even the numbest stretches with bursts of life that refuse to allow Cassandre to become a sad indie cliche who grows through her grief by going home again. She is sad, but she’s never only sad; she has been running away, but she’s also been going places. And if she can find a single fuck to give about something more than her unfeeling grief, she might even be able to enjoy herself wherever she lands next.
“Zero Fucks Given” will be available to stream on MUBI starting Wednesday, March 30.