My Friend Victoria Review
My Friend Victoria is something of a departure for Jean Paul Civeyrac. Based on a Doris Lessing novella (‘Victoria and the Staveneys’), there's no sign here of the filmmaker's usual preoccupations with death and the afterlife. Even in his most abstract films, dealing with characters so heavily weighted down by loss and bereavement that they still 'live' with the dead person (Les solitaires, Fantômes) or are simply unable to continue to live on a separate plane from their loved ones (À travers la forêt, Des filles en noir), Civeyrac was still dealing with difficult aspects of the human condition not easily put into a narrative or cinematic format. In its own way, Mon amie Victoria is no less ambitious and successful in how the filmmaker attempts to capture a deep inexpressible condition, one that marks a whole life.
Civeyrac retains the voice and the social context of Lessing's book, both of which are important to the narrative and the deeper human emotions it explores. The voice is retained in a voice-off narrator, Fanny, who writes about the difficult path that her friend Victoria's life has taken. The social context is that of a young black girl unable to fit in and find her place in a European society that has closed class structures that are difficult to cross and ingrained attitudes and expectations that are hard to accept. The deeper human condition that Civeyrac explores is the impact this has on Victoria, trying to find an unspoken way to express her inner life, her expectations, her disappointments, but also how her life is shaped in the space between her expectations and the reality.
Essentially it all boils down to a single moment when Victoria is 8 years old. One day, her aunt who she lives alone with is ill and has been kept in hospital, so is unable to pick her up from school. An older boy, Edouard, from a well-off middle-class liberal family whose both parents are actors, takes pity on this little black girl and takes her back to stay with at their apartment. The bathroom alone is probably bigger than the space that Victoria shares with her aunt, so the young girl is inevitably impressed, but the sentiments she experiences there go much deeper than that and have a major impact on the rest of her life. When her aunt dies, Victoria stays with the family of a friend as is welcomed as a sister by Fanny, the narrator, but for Victoria something is missing.
The narrative describes the path Victoria's life takes as she grows up. Despite the encouragement and every opportunity to extend her education, Victoria settles for leaving school early and working in cafes and as an assistant in a record shop. Mon amie Victoria follows the subsequent events in her love life in a fairly linear fashion in a sequence of chapters. It seems like a typical search to find roots, family, identity and security thereby, and it's clear that it's more difficult for a young black girl to be accepted equally into this society. There is however more to Victoria's circumstances and it is very much related to the incident that marked her childhood so significantly. Edouard himself remains largely absent, as he takes off establishing a distinguished name and career for himself, but there is a family presence that is a constant reminder of a life that Victoria might aspire to, but deep down knows is beyond her reach.
Beyond the melodrama of a life tossed and turned by the tides of fortune, it's this aspect - subtle and understated by way of contrast - that gives a warmer human heart to the film, warmer than one would typically expect from this director. The contrast is partly marked by the performance, or perhaps it would be better described as the presence, of Guslagie Malanga as Victoria. Viewed from a slightly detached third-person perspective, Victoria is moreover somewhat guarded in her emotions and her expression, but it all contributes towards a strong definition of personality; stronger than Victoria, still attached to an otherness in the past, can recognise in herself. Civeyrac finds many little ways to express what Victoria cannot, in her episodes of sleepwalking, in the silent sullen reproach of her child Charlie, in the director's usual impeccable employment of music (predominately Aaron Copland's 'Clarinet Concerto' here). It's a beautifully made film that proves to be tragic without anything truly tragic happening, leaving Victoria and the viewer rather with an aching feeling of regret for something that was probably forever unattainable, if we could even pin down exactly what it was in the first place.