Jeanne Herry’s drama features three personal stories as they traverse the bureaucracy and heartache of the adoption process
Filmmakers are regularly drawn to the practical and overall functioning of the institutions and systems that their characters inhabit. French writer-director Jeanne Herry continues with this template and approach in In Safe Hands (original French title Pupille), as Alice (Elodie Bouchez), Jean (Gilles Lellouche) and Karine (Sandrine Kiberlain) are thrown together in an emotional piece that pits the human need for purpose and belonging against the seemingly cold procedures and assessments of social welfare and the adoption apparatus.
Clara (Leila Muse) is a student in her early twenties who has made the incredibly difficult decision to surrender her one-day-old son. The baby, temporarily named Theo, goes into the Social Care System where he becomes the responsibility of experienced, brutish interim social carer Jean (Gilles Lellouche) and welfare officer Karine (Sandrine Kiberlain). The pair are not only caretakers of the infant, but also the assessors of potential adoptive parent Alice (Elodie Bouchez), a 41-year old divorcée desperate for a child of her own. Alice struggles to find a new balance between her career and instincts, and desire to become a parent whilst facing constant challenging assessments and invasive interviews.
In Safe Hands plays out over a three month period where these individuals attempt to find the best way forward as carers, parents and human beings. The ensemble piece is realistically dramatic with a variety of relationships taking shape and being created as Jean and Karine flirt with their own blossoming affections whilst at the same time attempting to ensure that the closeness and connection between child and adoptive parent is authentic and lasting.
Director Herry combines an interesting combination of styles as elements of talking-head documentary and soap-opera tearjerker are amalgamated. Perhaps this unique arrangement is a commentary on how Herry sees real life and in particular the process of closed adoption as captured in this – her second feature film – after darkly clever and comedic, Number One Fan. Herry confuses this viewpoint with a distinct lack of natural handheld camera movement and instead chooses a more rigid and stagnant lens to capture conversations and dialogue. This creates a coldness that again hints at the environment our protagonists find themselves in.
The slightly confused and fragmented structure however is often jarring and equally oversimplifies more complex situations and scenarios. Theo’s lack of affect and emotional response whilst in the care of Jean is resolved in super quick time without significant distress or effort. This approach weakens the lofty ambitions aimed for by all those involved. There are interesting and perhaps even radical concepts at play in all human drama, emotion is often equated with basic biology but vital interactions between characters are often preceded by physical weaknesses or expressions being exposed. And yet the emotional impact is sorely lacking or, even worse, manipulative and overly sweet.
In Safe Hands is a film that has a clinical and almost academic approach that would’ve required incredible dedication and research to achieve, but this does not necessarily make for an enjoyable or challenging viewing experience. There is almost a preachiness that accompanies the entire piece that lingers for the majority of the, at times, tedious 107 minute running time. Herry even employs a narrative gimmick where the impact on Theo’s budding psychology is explained to him, and by extension us, regardless of the fact that he has no way to understand these concepts or express his impressions of them. Instead of a natural informative technique it only compounds the notion of educating the unenlightened viewer. Unsurprising then to realise that the child is actually referred to as a “pupil” in French.
While cinema can be an incredible opportunity for growth, cultivation and development, modern audiences are savvy enough to recognise the overt manipulation of intimacy depicted here.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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