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CANNES 2024 Un Certain Regard

Review: Niki


- CANNES 2024: This portrait of a misunderstood artist is a frustrating feature-length directorial debut for César-nominated actress Céline Sallette

Review: Niki
Charlotte Le Bon in Niki

A powder-white princess with bright-red lips and a ruby-adorned crowned atop her head: the opening scene of Céline Sallette’s Niki concocts a striking image. Is this an aristocrat, or perhaps a model? Actually, she’s both – but the title character wishes to divorce herself from both identities, this seemingly glamorous life weighing down on her and having already caused irreparable damage to her self-image and her mental health. Sallette helms this portrait-cum-biopic of trailblazing French-US artist Niki de Saint Phalle as her feature debut, which has just premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard.

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With a subject played in all her eccentricity by Canadian actress Charlotte Le Bon, the director suggests that she was highly misunderstood, initially dismissed for her idiosyncratic personality caused by a traumatic childhood, and never given the support she really deserved. Sallette's film is skewed towards Niki’s earlier life with her first husband, Harry Matthews (John Robinson), and the movie ends with the emotional death of Niki Matthews and her rebirth as Niki de Saint Phalle. Starting in 1952 and moving through the years, Niki traces the artist’s life from actress to painter and sculptor as well as her various stints in a mental facility owing to her proclivity to collect knives and weapons – a response to sexual abuse from her father that haunts her throughout her life, as alluded to in the film. Flashbacks to her childhood follow her everywhere she goes, and she slowly moves towards personal autonomy while freeing herself from the social confines in which she’s been placed.

It’s one thing to understand why Sallette was so drawn to the grand mythos of de Saint Phalle, but it’s quite another for it to land in cinematic form. With a screenplay by Sallette and Samuel Doux, the film is bogged down by confusing plot choices and a regrettably bland set of characters, save perhaps for an irresistibly smooth Jean Tinguely – a sculptor and Niki’s eventual second husband – played by Damien Bonnard. Frequent and irregular time skips contribute to a narrative that’s difficult to follow while leaving too little time to absorb the characters and their impact on Niki's life. It’s easy to side with Le Bon’s Niki and her strong-willed nature when placed in a patriarchal environment that dismisses women as hysterical, but it’s not enough to fully get a grasp on why the artist should be truly memorable for the viewer.

The film is otherwise propped up by performances from an excellent cast and a set of vibrant creative choices. With its bright colours, saturated palette and portrait of a so-called “troubled” artist, Niki evokes pictures like Will Sharpe's The Electrical Life of Louis Wain [+see also:
film profile
, which, too, is fixated on a quirky yet extraordinary figure. Costume designers Marion Moulès and Matthieu Camblor traverse the ages with clothing that showcases Niki’s transformation and personal evolution. Moving between airy winds and bold brass scoring, the music by longtime Céline Sciamma collaborator Para One is a particular highlight, bringing the protagonist’s complex mind into an aural realm as she moves towards her eventual self-liberation.

Niki is a French-Belgian production staged by Cinéfrance Studios and Wild Bunch, in co-production with France 2 Cinéma, One Cinq, Panache Productions, La Compagnie Cinématographique, Proximus/Voo/Be Tv and Hologram. Its international sales are managed by Pulsar Content.

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