MY FRIEND VICTORIA (2015) review
written by: Jean-Paul Civeyrac (from a novel by Doris Lessing)
produced by: Phillipe Martin
directed by: Jean-Paul Civeyrac
runtime: 95 min.
U.S. release date: December 4, 2015 (NY), January 8, 2015 thru January 14, 2015 (Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, IL)
The title of Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s new film “My Friend Victoria” (“Mon Amie Victoria”) refers to the narrator’s good friend since childhood. The narrator’s name is Fanny and she is compelled to tell the story of Victoria and by the time the film has ended, we get the idea that the story of Victoria’s life is not one that she could tell on her own – or one in which she would think is worth telling. But Fanny is the kind of friend we should all have – a loyal and patient listener who has her friend’s back and believes there’s a story worth telling. So does French writer/director Cuveyrac, who, along with warm cinematography by David Chambille, has created a fascinating contemporary character study that looks at race, identity and family in unique ways.
The film opens and closes with Fanny (Nadia Moussa) and Victoria (Guslagie Malanga), two African-born Parisians in their twenties, walking in a park with two carefree children playing around them. We will learn that the children – seven year-old, Marie (Maylina Diagne) and five year-old, Charlie (Khadim Ka) – both belong to Victoria and, if we pay close enough attention, we will notice that Fanny is holding in her hands a manuscript that reads “Mon Amie Victoria”. She has finished writing her friend’s story and is ready to share it with the world, but may be reticent to share it with her friend.
As Fanny narrates, she takes us back to when Victoria was in grade school, where the two first met at age eight. Young Victoria (Keylia Achie Beguie) lives with her sickly aunt and both are looked in on by a church friend, Diouma (Elise Akaba), who’s also Fanny’s mother. Victoria is eventually taken in by Diouma and is raised like a sister to Franny, along with her baby brother, Sékou and their grandpa. It’s a loving environment, but then Victoria tastes a slice of life that will leave an indelible mark on her. One day after school, Victoria winds up spending the night at the Savinet home – a wealthy, white and accepting nearby family of one of her classmates. She is smitten with the family’s bourgeois life and their oldest son, Edouard, who’s a couple years older than her.
That night and atmosphere of white privilege stays with Victoria as he grows up, drops out of school and takes on an assortment of jobs while Fanny pursues a career as a publisher. As an aimless adult, Victoria finds herself working in a local record shop, where she reconnects with Thomas (Pierre Andrau, “My Golden Days”) and the two develop a romantic relationship the summer before he heads to America for university. Victoria gives birth to his daughter, Marie, raising her on her own, eventually meeting a local musician named Sam (Tony Harrisson) whom she falls in love with and gets married to. He’s a bit volatile and is often absent as a touring musician, which makes things difficult for Victoria as she raises both Marie and their son, Charlie, but it’s clear they love each other – until that relationship ends abruptly.
When Victoria discovers Thomas has returned to Paris, she decides it’s time to introduce Marie to her father and his family. This decision isn’t easy, as she knows the kind of questions such an introduction will bring and how it will look, but one can only assume she has her fond recollections of her time spent with the Savinet family when she was her daughter’s age to help with her decision. There are more prosperous possibilities for Marie in her future if Victoria involves her child’s grandparents in her life – better schools, better living environments and experiences.
Sure enough, Thomas’ left-wing socialist parents, Elena (Catherine Mouchet) and Lionel (Pascal Gregory), now separated and both stage actors, embrace Marie – with Elena exclaiming she’s, “always wanted a little black girl” and Lionel picking up Marie, calling her his, “caramel latte” or “coffee-colored” girl. They clearly love their granddaughter and embrace Victoria, but it’s obviously an awkward situation for Victoria, especially considering she will likely never get back together with Thomas and there are memories inside her that conjure that unidentifiable feeling she had for Edouard when she was a child. Yet life will go on for Victoria and she will likely continue aimlessly bouncing to different retail jobs and relationships with men, while raising her children – but, is she happy or at the very least content with her life?
That questions lingers as the film closes, just as much as it exists throughout the movie. Even when she’s played as a young girl, it’s heard to get an idea where Victoria is or how she feels – both Beguie and Malanga portray her as distant, somewhat sad and someone who rarely ever smiles (despite both actresses having beautiful smiles). Granted, I’m not one who thinks people should smile all the time, but I’m referring even to the act of laughing – which is a visible rare occurrence for viewers and primarily only happens for Victoria when she is with a guy she’s interested in or in public with her daughter. It seems there is more going on internally with Victoria, more than we’ll ever know since her story is being told by her best friend.
Civeyrac breaks down “My Friend Victoria” into chapters – all named after the significant people in Victoria’s life – the men and her daughter. We can assume these are the chapters that Fanny is incorporating into her account, which adds another unique approach to the film. Not only is the narration contextual and needed (quite rare for narration), but these chapters also give us an understanding of how Fanny sees Victoria’s life. Since we never really find Victoria articulate her emotions or confess her feelings to anyone, it is left to Fanny to tell us how her friend is feeling as she tells us Victoria’s story. Some of it may be projecting, but who else is going to tell her friend’s story?
“My Friend Victoria” is an adaptation of a 2003 short story called Victoria and the Staveneys written by late Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing, which appeared in a compilation called The Grandmothers. Civeyrac changes locations from London to Paris with the plot itself primarily remaining the same, except that the emphasis on racial differences is more prevalent in Lessing’s story. Here, it is felt, but what is felt more are the subtleties that speak to an identity crisis that understandably builds over time with for orphans, subconsciously surfacing and effecting many areas of life.
Who Victoria is remains a question long after viewing, since we see Fanny’s perspective. This can obviously be said for how our own friend’s see us or how we see our friends, which makes “My Friend Victoria” all the more unique yet quite relatable and thought-provoking.