23 February 2009 | Chris Knipp
Director's autobiographical portrait of her 11th year really sings
It's 1977 and Stella Vlaminck begins her first year in a prestigious Parisian secondary school. Home for her is a boisterous working class café on the edge of Paris. This is a chance. Can she make it? That's the premise of this buoyant, touching autobiographical film by Sylvie Verheyde, which has to be one of the best movies made from the point of view of a pre-teen girl. It's on a par with Julie Gavras's very fine young girl's political biography, Blame It on Fidel, and depicts its family with the same unwavering eye.
To understand why this is such a terrific movie, begin with Lóra Barbara, the young actress who plays Stella, who's superb. Sometimes she's plain. Sometimes she's lovely. Sometimes she seems tiny. Sometimes she's big. Always, she's present. And she narrates (a device that's seamless and delicate, guiding us often but never intruding).
The essence of the story is that though Stella happens to find her one friend in Gladys (Melisa Rodrigues), a more middle-class girl from an intellectual Argentinian Jewish family, and Gladys is the best student in her class, Stella finds out she doesn't know a lot of things she needs to know. She knows about pinball and cards and pop music and TV and football and how a bar is run. European history and Greek mythology, Balzac and Cocteau are a mystery to her. And at first she doesn't care, and she comes home with all F's. Her father (played charismatically by cool singer-songwriter Benjamin Biolay) is sexy, and well-liked and her mom (Karole Rocher) runs the café and is good looking. They're "stars" in the neighborhood. But she's angry and sad and is two-timing him with one of the regulars, and dad drinks too much and is weak. Her older brother Loïc (Johan Libereau) tries to help, but can't. Very kind to Stella is another local, Bubu (Jeannick Gravelines), but his motives turn out to be ugly indeed.
Under Gladys' influence, Stella begins to read. Marguerite Duras and Balzac become her friends. But they don't yet help her in French class, where the teacher finds her spelling utterly pathetic.
Life at the café is entertaining to come home to. And there's Alain-Bernard (Guillaume Depardieu, sadly, dead four months ago at 37), the kind, charismatic regular Stella's got a crush on. She plays cards, and is good. She plays the pinball machine with Alain-Bernard too. There's always something going on. It's fun, but it's chaotic, and it distracts Stella from studying, or keeps her from going early to bed. There is TV to watch (Gladys' family don't have one; they're "against" it). Sometimes the working-class patrons seem more childish than the bourgeois kids at the school, whose teachers are imperious and demanding gatekeepers of French high culture. This is a contrast to the present-day 'banlieue' school depicted so accurately in Cantet's recent prizewinner, The Class. No teacher is going to bend to Stella. Some of the teachers are abusive and throw tantrums--or throw a kid's stuff out the window.
In the summer Stella's parents dump her off somewhere in the country with her grandmother, her father's mother, who steals from the till when she visits them in Paris. At school, Stella's a hick, a nothing, not too smart and not too cool. In the country, she's "rich," because from Paris. But here too she's a misfit because her only friend is a girl with a retarded brother and a nasty scary alcoholic dad, Genvieve (Laetitia Guerard), who herself is shunned by most of the other kids in the northern French village.
Verheyde shows a masterly ability to film all these milieus and make them seem like it's just happening and the camera's a fly on the wall. The cinematography by Nicolas Gaurin is light as a feather. This filmmaker creates a turbulent world, yet knows how to stop and let her story breathe. There were many moments that reminded me why I love French cinema.
Stella opened November 12, 2008 in Paris to excellent reviews. There's not much you can say against this film, though some thought the screenplay ought to have been less episodic. Shown as part of the Rendez-Vous at Lincoln Center March 2009. No US distributor, but this is highly recommended. 103 minutes.