Queen of Montreuil
by Mima Simic
Among the films screened in the competition section of the 16th Flying Broom Festival, a festival that calls itself a women’s film festival (with all the complexities this declaration entails), one seemed to stand out — both in its approach to the subject(s) of trauma and the reactions it drew from the audiences. Whilst most of the other films, which also dealt with traumatic events (personal, social, political, historical) framed their narratives in the genre of drama, with only intermittent flashes of humor, in Queen of Montreuil the Icelandic director Sólveig Anspach decided to shape the grave subjects of death, loss and creative standstill into a playful, sporadically surreal comedy. Despite this directorial decision and the dangers of the genre, the humaneness is not lost in the genre and the film manages to grasp the intricacies of one woman’s breakdown and renaissance in contemporary, culturally complex France.
The story of a film director Agathe (Florence Loiret Caille) who must face the sudden death of her husband as well as a director’s block, at the same time dealing with eccentric guests from Iceland (Didda Jonsdottir as Anna and Úlfur Aegisson as Úlfur) and a sea lion, is an obviously fertile cinematic (play)ground for the development of narrative friction; it is created through a juxtaposition of images, cultures and peculiar characters who, nonetheless, refuse to sink into stereotypes and manage to reflect on many serious topical issues, both social and artistic — class differences, financial crisis, interracial marriage, sexual and artistic freedom and so on. As for it being a ‘woman’s film’, it circumvents the customary (heterosexual) romantic story, and focuses on two female characters, who are two sides of the same creative coin — one is an introverted director, the other an extroverted, life-hungry poet; they complement each other and — unlike many comedies that revolve around the romantic fulfillment of the protagonist — it is the dynamic between these two women that shapes the actual narrative core of the film and provides a catalyst for the protagonist’s healing and self-realization. Refreshingly, the romantic pursuit remains quietly on the sidelines and is actualized only when the protagonist has restored her sense of selfhood. If we try to contextualize Queen of Montreuil in the thematic frame of a ‘woman’s film festival’, we find it is a film that reaches beyond gender-specific issues, just as the character of Anna unapologetically rising above the suburbs in the crane she learns to operate. Indeed, this kind of an approach to the female quest for freedom and self-realization struck a chord with both the jury and the audiences — humor proved yet again to be a powerful tool for conveying (micro)political messages. Among the thousands of meters of celluloid (or 0’s and 1’s) that solemnly reflected on human, and particularly women’s, suffering, Queen of Montreuil was a game-changer, a sigh of relief — a promise of a more diverse future, and already another kind of present, for (celluloid) women — a feast both for cinephiles and gender theorists. To be sure, one could complain that a protagonist, who is a Parisienne, and an artist, could afford to deal with the universal, rather than with specifically ‘women’s’ issues; that she inhabits the world where gender does not necessarily shape one’s destiny (as it does for women in films dealing with political conflict, war, or often motherhood) — but isn’t this the kind of a world we all want to inhabit? And isn’t cinema — even the arthouse kind — the fantasy factory that seduces us into believing that another kind of world is possible, that it takes place before our very eyes, and we are all actors, editors and directors in it…
Edited by Carmen Gray
© FIPRESCI 2013