In his prefatory remarks to the film, critic Jonathan Romney describes My Friend Victoria as amongst the more realist within Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s oeuvre. Despite my unfamiliarity with the French director (who, Romney points out, has received regrettably little attention outside of France), this description would appear fitting even from a synoptic knowledge the source text, Doris Lessing’s Victoria and the Staveneys. The short story, which triangulates the struggles of its titular heroine as lover, mother and black woman, is as emotionally as it is socio-politically incisive, and so perhaps lends itself to the unvarnished gaze of cinematic realism.
The film’s opening, which finds Victoria (played by Guslagie Malanda) orphaned and adopted, sets up the expectation of a similarly Dickensian level of social critique. Yet what is immediately apparent is how little Civeyrac is interested in capturing the “reality” of Victoria’s poverty; nor even, as Kechiche so graphically does in La vie d’Adèle, the grotesque “reality” of the body. Instead, the affective epicentre of the film is imagined, not real. Crucially, Civeyrac chooses to refract issues of race and class through the imagination of the eight-year-old Victoria: it is not the conditions of her existence per se, but the night she spends with the (white, middle class) Staveneys that spawns Victoria’s adult fixation with upward social mobility, a self-destructive fantasy she spends a lifetime feeding.
My Friend Victoria is overpowered by a strong sense of its own fantasy, one buoyed by its almost melodramatic score which, in a manner redolent of early Disney, overflows with heaving movements. Yet like Ariadne, who in Inception wanders the cityscapes of Cobb’s psyche, Victoria may be the dreamer, but is not its architect. It is instead her adoptive sister, Fanny (Nadia Moussa), the other half of this tale of two cities and somewhat predictably a writer, who weaves the dream. Upon reflection, Fanny’s opening complaint that “[j]e mis dis souvent que peut-être j’aurai pu changer quelques choses” [I often think I could have changed things] curdles with irony: if Civeyrac’s film teaches us anything, is it that those with the power to alter a narrative, the cultural gatekeepers of society, hold the keys to the kingdom.
Victoria’s inability to set the limits of her own existence is often felt most keenly in details planted by Civeyrac: her locking eyes with the monstrous black mask ornamenting the Staveneys bathroom; the stereotyped black characters of the classic film playing silently in the family’s living room; the soul music favoured by their youngest son, Thomas. Yet it is equally borne out structurally: in naming the film’s chapters after Victoria’s lovers, Fanny corroborates the cruel accusation made by her brother, “You let society fuck you”. Where the sociologist sees a black Parisian woman’s battle with her material conditions, the literary scholar Fanny sees a struggle for self-determination. What she fails to see is that fraternal love has become a source of disempowerment, her ability to tell the story a sign of her elusion of the very racial quagmire in which her protagonist, her sister, her friend Victoria is stuck.
My Friend Victoria is currently screened in London as part of the BFI London Film Festival. To book tickets, visit http://tinyurl.com/lf7khgq
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