Female Agents (Les Femmes de l'ombre) Review
The somewhat flat and over-literal English title for Jean-Paul Salomé's Les Femmes de l'ombre does little service to this tight and suspenseful wartime thriller, which combines elements of female espionage familiar from films such as Carve Her Name with Pride and Black Book with the fast-paced, ensemble-driven action of Where Eagles Dare and The Dirty Dozen. Under Hollywood conditions such a film could easily have turned out schmaltzy and clichéd, but as a piece of French cinema, giving careful attention to character realism and narrative plausibility, it makes for a gripping, edge-of-the-seat synthesis of drama and action.
Top agent Louise Desfontaines (Sophie Marceau) becomes involved with the British Special Operations Executive and is tasked, together with her brother Pierre (Julien Boisselier), with creating a team of women to rescue a British geologist from a hospital in France, as he possesses vital information about the upcoming D-Day landings that mustn't fall into enemy hands. Using a mixture of persuasion and blackmail, Louise assembles her motley crew, chosen for their expertise in the various areas of seduction, explosives, wireless communications and plain ability to kill. Their chief adversary is SS Colonel Heindrich (Moritz Bleibtreu), a counter-intelligence commander who knows of the geologist and needs to extract information from him in order to convince his superiors about his suspicions regarding D-Day. The operation doesn't quite go according to plan and the movie opens out into an extended game of cat-and-mouse between Heindrich and the girls that hardly pauses for breath as the twists and thrills pile up right till the end.
What's really good about Female Agents is the pervasive sense of realism that undercuts one's genre expectations. Details such as the fear and trembling produced by a momentarily sticking rifle breach, a nighttime parachute jump and a fumbled attempt to take a cyanide pill, all add to the sense of authenticity. And the girls' constant struggles between duty and self-interest, with none of them wishing to be 'heroes', also ring true. At first Louise has to threaten and bully them to keep control, but soon bonds form in the heat of adversity. Jeanne (Julie Depardieu), a 'floozy' who faced the noose in a British jail for the murder of her pimp, proves more than capable as a team member when the bullets begin to fly. The attractive Suzy (Marie Gillain) is required to use her feminine charms as a weapon and the anguish and confusion she suffers reveal her character as anything but the standard-issue wartime femme fatale. Heindrich too is far from the stereotypical movie Nazi, instead coming over as a ruthless and ambitious man who will do whatever it takes to prove himself right, but still showing human fallibilities.
Inevitably with a wartime ensemble piece there's an element of each character illustrating a 'type' - so Jeanne is the troublesome one who comes good, Gaëlle (Déborah François) the weak and vulnerable one, and Maria (Maya Sansa) the quiet but clever 'techy' one, and so on. But again the quality and detail of the acting and the intricate nature of the plotting keep it from falling into banality. In between the shoot-outs, chases and torture scenes, there are moments when the women compare notes, measuring the damage done by war on their personal lives, and there are plenty of emotional outpourings and tears shed alongside the cold-blooded killing sprees, rounding out the characters. Sophie Marceau carries the film as the steely-eyed Louise - a consummate dissembler, arch-manipulator, sharpshooter and freedom fighter combined who sums up that particular brand of courage we associate with the French Resistance. And Julie Depardieu, daughter of Gérard, is also outstanding, and the empathy between these two gives the film its heart, forging an emblem of female bonding in times of great adversity.
Like the German war film Downfall, Female Agents benefits enormously from everyone speaking their correct language - as well as French, there are scenes in German and English - and it also provides a fresh native perspective of a well-visited historical scenario. Further verisimilitude is lent by using real locations in Paris, with the stately buildings draped in Nazi flags. Overall it has the gusto of a classic war film enlivened with more contemporary techniques, such as step-printing, fast-paced action, realistic violence, including uncomfortable scenes of torture, and a high degree of psychological realism, all of which adds up to a piece that succeeds in being both entertaining and meaningful.
The two disc Special Edition comes with impressive menu cards, where an exploding ball of fire leads to a five way split screen, showing segments of the film to Bruno Coulais' plaintive theme music. Disc one contains the film, presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The transfer is excellent, preserving the film's moody period look, with its predominance of rich sepia tones and good shadow detail in the sometimes gloomy interior and night scenes. The occasional impression of grain only adds to the effect of age and period appropriateness. The audio track is very crisp and strident, with clear dialogue throughout and a well-achieved balance and separation of the effects of gunfire, explosions and the unsettling high-pitched sound of screaming. There are fixed English subtitles, excluding the sections in English, and English place name captions to accompany those in French.
Disc two contains the extras, which consist of 'The Making of a Historical Thriller' - 50 mins; 'Women at War - Spies and Angels' - 50 mins; deleted scenes - 14 mins; and Déborah François Casting Session - 5 mins.
Director Jean-Paul Salomé presides over the 'Making of' documentary, which shows him at work on various sets and in interview talking about the challenge of balancing the historical and entertainment aspects of the movie. We see the cast undergo weapons training, the processes of dyeing the costumes to achieve that 40s drab brown look and the creation of a prosthetic lower leg for a leg-breaking scene. There is also an interesting interview with an historian who was employed to ensure the factual accuracy of what was shown - for example, tape recorders were not available at torture sessions and any information extracted from spies would be typed up.
'Women at War - Spies and Angels' is a British-made documentary, in English and in 4:3 ratio, showing the role of women in wartime espionage throughout history. Starting with female camp followers in the Middle Ages, through to scouts in the English Civil War and nurses in the Crimean and American Civil Wars, traditional female roles were often employed as cover for spying - and indeed prostitution - activities. Famous figures, such as Edith Cavell and Mata Hari, both executed for spying, are discussed and the role of the SOE in World War II takes the story through to the point where Female Agents begins.
The deleted scenes and casting session are worthwhile additions, with Jean-Paul Salomé explaining their relevance. Some of the scenes are obviously ripe for cutting, since they are unnecessarily expository, but there is one involving an early catfight between two of the girls that is rather good and perhaps should have stayed.
Both documentaries are interesting and overall the extras package is fine as far as it goes. What are lacking are interviews with the actresses themselves, which would undoubtedly have shed another light on the subject of women at war.
Overall the Special Edition is a good presentation of a film that deserves to reach a mainstream audience outside of its native country and which may have been hampered in this respect by the perception that it is French 'art' cinema. The barrier created by the dread word 'subtitles' will always be there, but in the same way as films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon have changed the general view of what Asian cinema can be, Female Agents might go some way towards doing the same for France.