Jessica Forever

**1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Jessica Forever
"The real star here is Marine Altan's cinematography, investing locations both lavish and drab with the kind of spiritual wonder seen only through the eyes of those who have always been outsiders." | Photo: Ecce Films/Arte France Cinema 208

In a quiet suburb where the grass is neatly cropped and the sun rides high in the blue sky, a group of young men dressed entirely in black and toting machine guns surround a very ordinary looking house. Inside, another young man sits shaking on the floor, surrounded by the remains of the plate glass window he just jumped him. The gang surround him. They have no ill intentions towards him. They want to get him out of there before a murderous army of small black drones arrives to finish him off.

This is the world of Jessica Forever, a disturbingly mundane place where the apocalypse seems to have happened in stages. There are drastically fewer people around than one would expect, and every one of the young men is an orphan, a survivor of some unnamed catastrophe, now hunted by French government operatives who view him as innately anti-social, a violent and dangerous thief. As the gang tries to survive, we bump into the occasional middle class person going about life as if nothing were amiss, and there's no sign of the civic decay one might expect - not even a pothole or a solitary piece of dog shit. The result is surreal and yet politically plausible to a degree that's rare in the genre, and all the more disturbing as a result.

Copy picture

It's here that the film's attachment to normalcy stops, however. Caroline Poggi and Jonathan Vinel's film is very much an exercise in style over substance, in the tradition of films like Subway and La Femme Nikita. Though there's rather less going on, it takes the same pleasure in giving its characters access to unlikely equipment and locations with no attempt at justification or even explanation, and at times it plays equally fast and loose with the laws of physics. What matters is the psychological experience that its characters are going through: these young drifters, plucked from hopeless obscurity and formed into an army by the titular Jessica, who commands them not through violence or any sexual influence (one youth has a nervous romance with a stranger but most of the chemistry here is homoerotic), but by offering them the thing that has been missing from their lives: love. As a result they are fiercely loyal to her and to one another. This is, in its way, a civilising force. It also makes them feel immortal - until one day that illusion is shattered and the stitches that hold their world together begin to fray.

The real star here is Marine Altan's cinematography, investing locations both lavish and drab with the kind of spiritual wonder seen only through the eyes of those who have always been outsiders. There's magic here and it's easy to understand why the young men find it so intoxicating - and here, too, the film draws on a vital tradition in French outsider cinema, reevaluating the world of the wealthy and even that of the suburban middle classes by letting the poor get a taste of it for the first time. The violence of poverty that underscores this narrative is every bit as important to the film's arc as the gun violence we see directly.

Jessica herself remains a distant figure. She's not really a girlfriend, not quite a mother - more like a prophet. The gift she gives is so alien that she seems at times to be imbued with supernatural powers. In the role, Aomi Muyock walks a difficult line, showing us someone who at times seems very ordinary yet whose ordinariness is itself remarkable in the eyes of those who cling to her for dear life.

Poggi and Vinel made their names in shorts and this, their first feature, suffers from being structurally undeveloped. It just doesn't have enough going on to justify its 97 minute running time, so that what ought to be lingering and haunting instead feels thin and enervated. Moments of brilliance are interspersed with long stretches of emptiness, and though there is an effort here to say something about the destructive influence of boredom it doesn't quite come off. Nevertheless, Jessica Forever is an interesting experiment, and one cannot help but be curious about what this pair will do next.

Reviewed on: 19 Feb 2020
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A group of orphan rebels are fortified in a villa with heavy arms to brace for a drone war with a faceless enemy in a dystopian future.


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