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Cannes 2024: This Life of Mine, On Becoming a Guinea Fowl

A man in a pink shirt and baseball cap stands next to a woman in a park on a sunny day.Philippe Katrine and Agnès Jaoui in This Life of Mine

At dinner my first night at this year’s Cannes, a friend asked our waiter if this was his restaurant’s busiest time of year. Not even close; that would be MIPIM, “the world’s leading real estate market event,” taking place in March and drawing 26,000+ people—a number handily dwarfing the 13,000+ market attendees, plus assorted press and filmmakers, at last year’s festival. It was a useful perspective check: if Cannes is roundly conceded the status of world’s biggest film festival when all components are accounted for, that doesn’t mean too much in the global scheme of things, where cinema, as we keep being told, is waning in relevance and generally in deep trouble. An appropriately doom-laden mood was nicely set by widespread internet and 4G outages on the second day of the festival thanks to a fire, as if to drive home the message that attendees are only talking to themselves within an insular bubble while the larger world briskly marches towards apocalypse. 

My festival kicked off with the Directors’ Fortnight opener, the late Sophie Fillières’ seventh and final film as a writer-director, This Life of Mine. The French actress and filmmaker died last year at age 58, checking into palliative care the day after wrapping production on this, knowledge which inevitably adds extra-textual devastation to dialogue like “Sometimes, in the morning, do you ever wonder, ‘However more fucking showers before I die?’” Poet-turned-advertising-copywriter Barbie Bichette (Agnès Jaoui) is separated from her husband; alienated from her daughter (Angélina Woreth), son (Édouard Suplice) and job; and frustrated with her withholding therapist. “I’m 55 and I still don’t know what my nature is,” she asks him. “Do you know my nature?” He remains stock still, in a fashion that suggests “Yes, and it’s not good,” but doesn’t answer. 

For its first third, This Life of Mine seems to be an above-average, not-quite-cringe comedy about a prickly person going through a rough patch. But when an encounter with a stranger claiming to be an old friend ends with Barbie lying down, saying she doesn’t feel well and asking that stranger to call her children, she wakes up in the hospital and has to rebuild her life. I completely missed that what happened wasn’t, say, a heart attack leading to physical rehabilitation but a full mental breakdown— perhaps because, all things considered, Barbie’s behavior didn’t strike me as particularly alarming (which I guess says a lot about my social circle). Checking with others, I was quasi-relieved to learn that most didn’t catch on to her mental illness until at least halfway through the film, if not further in. That I didn’t register what was happening accurately speaks to the slipperiness of a narrative unwilling to over-spell things out, as well as, obviously, obtuseness on my part. 

Besides that lightly worn ambiguity, This Life of Mine’s other strengths include that it’s often very funny despite the emotional heaviness, its related aversion to bathos and the finely detailed characterizations, not least Jaoui’s central performance while wearing Fillières’ own clothing and jewelry. As the writer, star (and, later, director) of films including, most prominently, 2000’s The Taste of Others, she’s a kind of doyenne of middlebrow French cinema. In a professional sense, she’s past the peak of her fame, adding a meta-pathos to her characterization in the same way that Fillières’ 2014 If You Don’t, I Will gained an extra charge from showcasing Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos in an antagonistic relationship outside of their usual such pairings in Arnaud Desplechin’s work. This Life resists underlining Barbie’s struggle with any songs or score until the very end, when the wild plot (whose inciting incidents and resulting consequences are continuously unpredictable) brings her to a desolate landscape, where she stares into the distance only to suddenly hear a guitar start playing. Is this the trope of a single non-diagetic cue dictating poignance at the end of an otherwise music-less film? It’s not: “Stop the music!” she cries before finding its unlikely source, a terrific final joke to a film that’d be just as moving if its maker were still alive.

In its excellent opening stretch, Rungano Nyoni’s sophomore feature On Becoming a Guinea Fowl gives zero clue of what kind of movie it might turn out to be. Driving down a rural Zambian road late at night, Shula (Susan Hardy) looks like a rogue aviatrix fleeing Berghain. She glances out the window, slows down, gets out and is revealed, in a full-body shot, to be wearing an oversized harlequin costume, a clown contemplating a corpse. The body is that of her late uncle Fred, and the uncertainty of what kind of reaction the poker-faced Shula is feeling is heightened when her super-wasted cousin, Nsansa (Elizabeth Chisela), shows up and joins her to form an odd couple comic duo. There are wild tonal disjunctures between the putative tragedy of it all and the actual black comedy that’s ensuing, and it’s all very exciting.

Nyoni was born in Zambia, raised in Wales and made the film with non-African funding; I would be fascinated to know what kind of conversations were had about how much explication of local particulars and rituals needed to be worked into the dialogue versus left for the audience to work out, but Guinea Fowl does a fine job of concealing its potential explainer qualities. As the film proceeds it becomes clear what kind of movie this is—a social-issues-driven one with a commendable agenda, just like Nyoni’s debut, I Am Not a Witch, about a young girl (also named Shula) accused of witchcraft, based on the writer-director’s observations of similar charges and their fallout in Zambia. That feature displayed strong formal control in service of a purpose that was clear from start to finish; Guinea is about patriarchal sexual abuse of children and matriarchal complicity in enabling it, something it’s likewise increasingly direct about as it discards tonal scrambling in favor of something unambiguously weightier.

There are memorable images throughout, as when Shula and Nsansa go to retrieve their cousin Bupe (Esther Singing) from a university dorm whose floors are low-key flooded, the waters sloshing around as the camera slowly glides over them. But momentum is lost as the film enters its second half; Shula’s relationship to the central topic is clarified in a way that lands with surprisingly zero impact, and as the film expands its scope it becomes diffuse rather than overwhelming. Per Nyoni in the press kit, “Initially the tone was meant to be more absurd, and then somehow as the film went on, it became more tonally depressing and dark. It’s just something that transformed during shooting. It somehow became cheap to make a joke out of everything.” I wish she’d stuck with it just to see what would happen; still, if this sophomore film isn’t as strong as her first, I will cheerfully watch whatever comes next. 

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