Woman Up!


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Woman Up
"There's a certain degree of decompression in its storytelling, and a willingness to jump in time and space, and though the two are strong there's a weird sense that these are the highlights and story beats of a much longer television drama."

There are some important digits in Woman Up - a missing €800 million, 10,000 jobs, a Swiss bank account, but the most important is missing from the UK title. Numero Une, 'Number One', is the title this film deserves, because that's the title that its protagonist is after.

Emmanuelle Blachey (Emmanuelle Devos) is a senior figure in a French energy firm, and over the course of the film, in salons, literal corridors of power and a series of rooms that seem to cry out for a fill of smoke, makes her case to become, well, number one, at the national water firm. Though the actual mechanisms of the machinations may be unclear to many audiences, the process of installation relies on older ones. Machiavellian manoeuvre isn't the whole of it, there are references to various figures from mythology in the names of organisations - indeed, enough that I'm racking my brain to remember if Amphitrite was mentioned. The sea, indeed water in general, is a constant presence. The flow of power, the movement of mass, drowning.

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Also, sadly, dilution. This is a good film, a study of character and circumstance, anchored in a strong central performance from Devos, but there are elements that don't quite grab. There's a certain degree of decompression in its storytelling, and a willingness to jump in time and space, and though the two are strong there's a weird sense that these are the highlights and story beats of a much longer television drama. There are features that do less with ten minutes short of two hours, but plot and counter-plot, dreamy interludes and a bottle episode, all suggest a larger canvas might have given better service to what we're seeing.

It might be the presence of Monet's Water-Lilies (more classics, the Nymphéas) in the spectacular setting of the Orangerie that suggests the compression of something much bigger. Certainly reflection and water are apt, and there might be something in its peaks and troughs of pacing, but it feels choppier than might have been intended, a series of waves that never quite crest. It might be the presence of UK TV 'That Guy' John Lynch that brings to mind serial dramas, it might be the influence of hybrid entities like Suburra, it would even be fair to say that it's because I wanted more. The occasional moments of langour are a good contrast to moments of sudden drama, I in particular was grabbed by the ripple of notifications as events unfold off-screen, and by a beautifully composed shot of an empty office from a distance, from above.

There are also a lot of players, a lot of arenas, from squash courts to the Elysee, blackmail by Blackberry, a splash of Tosca, and an abundance of references. There's a moment where a real firm is mentioned, and they've a production thanks for material support. There's an ending that (more numbers here) would seem a clear allusion to the 400 Blows, but other hells are raised here. Other people, for a start, chiefs of staff, charges d'affaires, and all sorts of assignations assignments and conflicts with the affianced abound, and it might be that profusion of protagonists and free flowing focus that is at the heart of my issue with the film. It's good, I enjoyed it, admired it, but trite observations of multi-tasking are right there and are better than the film deserves, but it does seem like it's trying to do too much.

Emmanuelle is a polyglot political operator, head-hunted by a salon to try to become the first female director of a CAC40 (more numbers! think Fortune 500, FTSE100) organisation. She's a daughter, a wife, a mother, a person - in Devos' capable performance a rounded individual, a character well served by director Tonie Marshall, whose own CV has seen her in front of the camera. It's a great performance in a film full of them, each supported by good off-screen work, music by the Kourtzers, cinematography by Julien Roux. I'm even a fan of the font, a lovely Art Deco which populates the credits with additional colour. Co-writers Raphaelle Bacque and Marion Doussot have previously crafted political works, and it's clear that experienced hands have worked on this.

It's also clear that it doesn't quite work. It might be that the 'political' thriller genre has been so stratified into streams that distance distorts - a Parallax View, if you will - that a middle ground between the tight focus of Michael Clayton and the ironically unstable production of larger entities like House Of Cards is a no-man's land, leaving this story of someone going for a big chair caught between two stools. There's an ending, which might actually be an epilogue, and a speech before it that's effectively a coda - I mention the title 'Number One' again because it appears in Emmanuelle's closing remarks, and that leads further to a conclusion. There's a line about being judged as representative, and the unfairnesses that come with that are implied, and it may be that I am being so here - this is a good film, but as it ranges from boardrooms to bedrooms, from web video to wind-farms, from off-shore to on-stage, its episode (and escalatory) nature start to work against it.

I don't think it fair to say it's trying to do too much - nothing it attempts fails - and I'm positive it's unfair to say that it's not doing enough - there's some starkly beautiful moments, a lot of glorious evocation and allusion. It's not just the presence of Classical names that means this feels epic (tell me, oh Muses, who taught the song of The Little White Boat?), and there's proper literary weight to the way water (phlegmatic, feminine) is a recurring element. There's something striking about how many of the credited roles are just numbers, this is (well-subtitled) a movie that invites reading. I'm just not sure it works on this screen, to this degree, but even with product placement and tax shelters and all the messy business of business it's an achievement to be saluted. It's just not number one.

Reviewed on: 07 Nov 2018
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Woman Up! packshot
An ambitious woman treads a dangerous path as she attempts to crash the corporate boys’ club.

Director: Tonie Marshall

Writer: Raphaëlle Bacqué, Marion Doussot, Tonie Marshall

Starring: Emmanuelle Devos, Suzanne Clément, Richard Berry

Year: 2017

Runtime: 110 minutes

Country: France

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