She is on-screen in every scene, every shot of the film. Cinema can hardly resist forceful, photogenic appearances like the one of beauty Melanie Thierry. Still, it might feel unbearable to be confronted with the constant intimacy of her face, curved with love, fear or anger, and dotted with all the skin imperfections the realistic make-up of a prisoner (beautiful or not) requires. But this is actually what the French director Stephane Cazes does in his debut — he exposes us to captivating close-ups of this unarmed yet powerful face. It belongs to a rebel prisoner serving a three-year sentence for assaulting a gendarme during a police raid; this raid accidentally killed her junkie boyfriend and left her alone with his unborn child — now to be raised behind bars.
But equally, in every scene, every shot of the film, Thierry’s face responds to our gaze, expressing various stages of a young mother’s desperation. Her temper is unpredictable and she constantly provokes uncertainty: will the rage of a lioness prevail over the cautiousness of a bird? Ombline does not let things happen to her. When others cheerfully believe in the optimistic version of reality (prison mate Yamina, exchanging love letters with her even more criminal boyfriend and planning a bright future once out of jail) or, with the self-resignation of long-term convicts, allow the brutality of prison life to deprive them of their own children (another fellow from their little maternity ward, Laurence), Ombline simply does not agree to the rules. She is a fighter. She knows what it means to be raised without a mother; she also knows that her little son Lucas is the only precious thing left in her life. But her defiance implies constant battles: with social workers, cellmates, her own friend Rita who failed to help – but most of all with the prison guards, who represent a whole new range of attitudes, from sympathetic and friendly to openly hostile or, to say the least, ambiguous; all nicely contrasting with the penitentiary savoir-vivre which dictates that all incarcerated women be addressed with the courteous “madam”.
While obviously Ombline is not the only film about prison life, its young director spent eight years documenting life behind bars. The French drama played in tune with many other films from the Off Plus Camera competition section where it received its FIPRESCI Prize. Like characters from Middle of Nowhere by Ava duVernay (an Afro-American hoping for her imprisoned husband to be released early for “good behaviour”), Simon Killer by Antonio Campos (Brady Corbet as an American in Paris, but all the wrong way), Smashed by James Ponsoldt (a young female drunk trying to get sober) or the festival winner Manhunt (Oblawa) by Marcin Krzysztalowicz (a guerrilla army executing traitors in Poland under the Nazi occupation), Ombline conveys the idea of redemption. The film starts and ends with the Noah’s Ark story, read by Thierry’s motherly warm voice to her little son, with the motif of rebuilding as an apparent (maybe too apparent and too repetitive) metaphor of revival; of reconstructing life after disaster passes. We don’t know if it will be reconstructed at all, because there is a constant threat of forthcoming tragedy threaded through the story, and Cazes makes us fear the worst, always balancing on the thin line between gritty pessimism and confidence of “action” films, where heroes create their own fate. But it is all the more of a relief to find that not all prison dramas end the same way.
Edited by Carmen Gray
© FIPRESCI 2013