Orphan: A journey through the circles of karma
by Fabien Lemercier
- One woman, four actresses and four very different lives: from the hand of Arnaud des Pallières comes a brilliant piece of conceptual filmmaking, shot through with a spirited realism
“You don’t look like the girl I knew.” The thirty-something woman on the receiving end of this statement is called Renée, but at 20 she went by Sandra; at 13, Karine; and, once, when she was a little girl, her name was Kiki. Four very different identities that talented French director Arnaud des Pallières progressively dissects over the course of the captivating journey through time that is Orphan [+see also:
film profile], world-premiering at the 41st Toronto International Film Festival and selected for the official competition of the 64th San Sebastián International Film Festival (16-24 September). Des Pallières takes a bold structural gamble, which on the face of it should have been tricky to pull off. The heroine is portrayed by four different actresses (the quietly graceful Adèle Haenel, the hot-headed Adèle Exarchopoulos, the dazzling Solène Rigot and the six-year-old Véga Cuzytek), reflecting both the different personalities that coexist inside us all and the gradual changes that one woman experiences on her journey through life. Not content with its remarkable seamlessness (all the more impressive given the lack of resemblance between the four leads), the film unravels its story with great skill, presenting audiences with the cinematographic equivalent of a Russian doll. The director’s experience in documentary filmmaking helps him to paint a highly incisive portrait of his female protagonist, drawing on an acute social and psychological realism that is heightened by the film’s intensity and sensuality. Des Pallières brings us right up close to the characters, lingering in the epicentre of their powerful emotions.
Life is not kind to Orphan’s heroine, quite the contrary, and her impenetrable determination to free herself—and especially to cast off the trammels of masculine power and social determinism—is repeatedly assailed by the apparent inevitability of a sombre fate, written in the past and bound up with a series of encounters with “the wrong choice of company”. Orphan follows the course of the life of its heroine, born against a background of violence and forced to blindly forge a path through the different worlds she encounters along the way, while sex and emotions, always simmering just below the surface, take on the guise of bargaining chips, of psychological weaponry. From the world of casinos and horse racing, awash with money and other temptations that promise an escape from the burden of debt and the chance to build a new life, we find ourselves spirited into the shadowy world of the nightclub—where the bloom and freshness of youth are at the mercy of an inner circle of adults with very different intentions—before being plunged, unsparingly, into the harsh everyday realities of the poor, where we see children, left to fend for themselves, playing hide-and-seek in a scrapyard.
The film starts off like a thriller, as we are introduced to a woman (the hypnotic Gemma Arterton) who, released from prison and on a mission to settle old scores, goes in search of headmistress Adèle Haenel. Later, moving backwards through time, the different strands of this fascinating story (co-written by the director and Christelle Berthevas) begin to weave together, interspersed with forward leaps into the present. The exquisitely sensual cinematography of Yves Cape lends the film both a powerful dose of realism and a resounding vitality. These are just a few of the aspects that define Orphan as a superb piece of cinema, fully meeting the expectations set by the director’s previous work (most notably Michael Kohlhaas [+see also:
interview: Arnaud des Pallières
film profile], which featured in the official competition at Cannes in 2013) and sealing his reputation as a filmmaker unafraid of breaking new ground and set on crafting a vision that is very much own.
(Translated from French)