Berlin juries have an interest in the confrontational and the transgressive: my guess is that this film in competition from Canadian director Denis Côté may well win the big prize. I am still not entirely sure how to view its exploitative aesthetic. But it’s undoubtedly true that the characters and performances grow and develop, unexpectedly, into something poignant and even rather melancholy by the end.
The setting is a therapeutic summer residency in a country house near a lake for young women who have issues with hypersexuality and sex addiction. They must surrender their phones (except for certain permitted breaks) and live together as a group with their mentors, with one weekend pass for the entire time; there are also activities and discussion groups. Geisha (Aude Mathieu) is a sex worker with piercings and a shaved head, and an aggressively slouching, jeering attitude; Léonie (Larissa Corriveau) was abused by her father as a child and now wishes to be humiliated and abused during group sex, often with strangers. Eugénie (Laure Giappiconi) has similar attitudes, together with drug abuse. The group is being guided by the cool, mature detached Sami (Samir Guesmi), whom Geisha naturally tries to seduce – claiming that she’s offering him a freebie, despite getting €300 a time in the sex marketplace – and to provoke him with racist remarks. Sami’s colleague is the German Octavia (Anne Ratte-Polle), who has a troubled personal life and a tense, competitive professional relationship with the founder of this course: this is pregnant Mathilde (Marie-Claude Guérin) who is ceding responsibility to Octavia and taking this summer off for maternity leave.
Scene by scene, Côté lays out the women’s memories, their violence, their intensity, their stamina, their need to shock, or their need to show they don’t care. But inevitably, a thaw sets in which we duly notice when the three women get away from the house for their weekend break. Geisha plaintively asks her boyfriend if their sex needs to be quite so porno and rough. Eugénie offers free sex to a trucker and ends up almost simply asking to be hugged. And in the film’s keynote scene of transgression, Léonie submits to some serious BDSM with her partner and then afterwards asks her man if she might possibly sleep with him in his bed and not just on the sofa.
Of course, we are waiting for the ultimate contamination: sex between one or more of the girls and the adults running the group. Côté keeps us hanging on for that one, but Octavia is unexpectedly moved by Eugénie’s talent for drawing – and by Eugénie herself – a revelation which might have been rather absurd, but which Côté manages with forthright conviction. Finally, there is a rather touching final-night “party” scene and an even more wistful sequence when the girls, like innocent little kids at the summer camp, run gleefully to jump in the lake.
The housekeeper, taking a motherly concern, asks Geisha if she might consider not minding quite so much about how boys look at her. It’s a question that might usefully be turned towards the film-maker himself. The three woman themselves and their sexuality are arguably glamorised, and male-gazed, for all that the movie is ostensibly about their own recovery from dysfunction and abuse. Well, the performances from Mathieu, Corriveau and Giappiconi are all very good and the movie is, against the odds, rather affecting.