This film review originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on August 28, 2008.
Directed by Jean-Paul Salome
Written by Jean-Paul Salome and Laurent Vachaud
Starring Sophie Marceau, Julie Depardieu, Marie Gillain, Deborah Francois, Moritz Bleibtreu, Maya Sansa and Julien Boisselier
There is something terribly enchanting about films about French Resistance fighters during World War Two. The combination of Gallic “cool” and thrilling execution of plots against the Nazis is hard to resist. The Underground (at least on film) seems to have produced many thousands of imperturbable Metro subway attendants, hotel desk clerks, aged orphanage directors, museum officers and restaurant waiters, all of whom were actively dedicated to defeating the Germans.
If, like me, you enjoy this sort of thing, then Female Agents is a not-to-be missed film, because it is all there in abundance. Yes, this film follows a sixty-plus year history of French re-writing their shameful history of collaboration during the war (surely one-quarter of the population did not engage in acts of resistance, as the movies seem to tell us). But the story of Female Agents – based, we are told on “true events” and in particular the life of Lise Villameur – is well-told, full of action, strong characters and a real willingness to let the “good guys” (or in this case, the good “gals”) suffer.
The time is May 1944 and the Allies are planning their D-Day invasion. An English geologist who was scouting the beaches at Normandy has fallen into German hands, and must be retrieved before he cracks under pressure and reveals the Allied invasion plans. As he is in a French hospital, the British intelligence service enlists five key female agents to play the roles of nurses and entertainers and grab him.
One agent – Maria (Maya Sansa), an Italian Jewish radio expert whose family has been killed by the Nazis – is already undercover nursing at the hospital. The other four are lead by Louise (Sophie Marceau), an experienced sniper, and her brother Pierre (Julien Boisselier), and include a regular “dirty dozen” of unlikely heroines. Jeanne (Julie Depardieu, daughter of Gerard), a tough former prostitute in prison for killing her pimp, has her sentence commuted for joining the mission. Gaelle (Deborah Francois) is a profoundly religious explosives expert, and Suze (Marie Gillain) is a former Parisian showgirl who once had a passionate affair with a German officer, Colonel Heindrich (Moritz Bleibtreu), who has now become a key Nazi counter-espionage officer.
When the initial mission is successful, things become more complicated, because there is more for this group to do. When members of the group start to get captured by the Nazis, we are faced with a number of torture scenes which well and truly earns the film its M-15+ rating. The camera pulls away during the worst of these scenes, thereby avoiding an R-18 (restricted) rating, but those who are squeamish be warned that Female Agents deals out more pain and suffering to its lead characters than most action films. The Nazi willingness to use psychological and physical torture of undercover agents is no doubt correct, and the film readily pushes the envelope of Resistance war films by posing the question of how long an agent can withstand such torture before cracking – for it is a question of “when” and not “if”.
The concentration on torture (and there are a number of scenes) gives Female Agents an unusual dark side. This is more fitting to the original French title of the film – Les Femmes De L’Ombre – which translates as the much more ambiguous “Women of the Shadows”.
A passing knowledge of French or German is helpful to appreciate the full significance of this film, as the characters do shift between speaking French and German, and knowing who is speaking what language when is not clear from the (generally excellent) subtitles, but informs the story line.
As for French collaboration with the Nazis, there is only one collaborationist character in this film, and even he is redeemed by switching sides towards the end. While this assuredly will make the French feel good about themselves, we must look to other films for a more accurate picture of the French and the Germans during the war.