Female Agents

Female Agents


Reviewed by: Richard Mellor

Not all ladies stayed at home during the war: so declares Jean Paul Salomé's triumphant tribute to five women's pivotal role in World War II. It seems history has treated the fairer sex unjustly, glossing over the invaluable contribution of a few to the Allied effort. I certainly had no idea that various females undertook such fiercely dangerous missions for the cause, flirting with death just as capably as their male counterparts.

Unless I skived a key lesson, no doubt this surprise will affect many others with a history GCSE, too. And the education doesn't stop there: Female Agents depicts, in fabulous detail, the political knife-edge that was spring 1944. The Allies have decided to attack and Hitler's Germans suspect as much; the key question is where in north-western Europe the British and American troops will land to begin their offensive.

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As the Allies hatch a plan one particular German, the cruel and extremely erect Colonel Heinrich (Moritz Bleibtreu), threatens to rumble them. Scared he will talk, a stern British operations committee – oddly speaking in French that’s subtitled in English - recruit Louise Desfontaine (Sophie Marceau) to deter him, first in Normandy and then in Paris. She’s allowed to conscript her own female commando unit: a showgirl, a prostitute, a radio expert and a chemist.

These initial scenes are rather too glossy: Louise's lot are implausibly attractive (Julie Depardieu looks nothing like dad Gerard!), and each boasts a requisite character kink and muddy past. Louise herself has suffered the execution of her husband, making it hard to tolerate her haughty brother (Julien Boisselier), who oversees the mission. But once the Usual Suspects-style assembly of this motley crew is complete, things quickly pick up.

Events in Paris fill the bulk of the film, as the girls gather to assassinate Heinrich. There are set pieces in the Metro, illicit rendezvous in the French National History Museum and battleplans drawn up in dusty rooms of the Blind Institute. Rollicking action scenes preceding pindrop-perfect moments of tension. Carriages tootle past and traitors lurk in every cafe. It’s occasionally over-the-top, and sometimes too glamorous and fondly recreated – but never dull.

My primary pre-film worry was that Female Agents would pile on the sexist righteousness – look, there’s women excelling at what men normally do! – and overly emasculate its heroines. In fact, quite the opposite is true: while the women are tough as nails, they are always allowed to retain those acutely feminine qualities – compassion, softness and maternal instinct – rather than develop into brawned-out caricatures. The film is much more convincing for this reason.

It’s also extremely realistic for being so unmuzzled. While Paris may be a dreamy blur, several scenes, as Heinrich resorts to torture, are positively nightmarish: extremely uncomfortable and quite graphically violent. Modesty is sacrificed in the interests of outlining the looming, horrible danger these agents face; it’s as though Salomé refuses to dodge bullets, and perhaps pitch for bigger box office business, in honour of his protagonists’ bravery.

Marceau is magnificent: reserving steely resolve for her enemies, but presenting to us a more vulnerable, kinder Louise. Bleibtreu is equally mottled, his scruples and patrotism suppressing a deeper tenderness that makes occasional cameos. Their battle is as thrilling as it is ambiguous.

Reviewed on: 26 Jun 2008
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Five women from the French Resistance are recruited by the British to perform a daring rescue and assassination.
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Director: Jean Paul Salomé

Writer: Jean-Paul Salomé, based on the book by Agnes Claverie.

Starring: Sophie Marceau, Moritz Bleibtreu, Julie Depardieu, Julien Boisselier

Year: 2008

Runtime: 120 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: France


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