CANNES — Life is opportunity.
More than ever before, I believe that. I have to believe that. In just over a week, I turn 44, and I stand at the edge of some major upheavals in my life. It has taken me a longer time to reach this point than I would have liked, but I eventually realized that inertia is no way to live. I would rather confront the pain and the disappointment of sifting through the ashes of a marriage burnt to the ground than continue to simply drift along hoping for some miraculous change for the better. There is nothing more terrifying to me than change, and I feel like that's true for most of us. We accept the way things are and consign dreams of change to being just that… dreams. The courage it takes to affect real change is not something we come by easily, and fear of the unknown can be a powerful motivator to simply let life happen to us, as if we are incapable of control.
In “Party Girl,” a wrenching and intimate film written and directed by Marie Amachoukeli, Claire Burger, and Samuel Theis, we are introduced to Angelique (Angelique Theis-Litzenburger), a 60-year-old cabaret dancer who has lived a certain lifestyle long past its expiration date. There was a point in my life where I was working for someone in New York who owned several businesses, and one of them was a strip club in Manhattan. At night, we would work there, and it gave us a chance to actually get to know the dancers. What surprised me is how quickly it went from a thrilling experience to a depressing one, but in hindsight, it seems inevitable. We live in a culture that thrives on objectification, and the one thing you can't do if you're objectifying someone is connect with them as a person. The moment that happened, the protective bubble of fantasy disappeared, and what had seemed intoxicating and sexy became a fairly ugly business transaction, one that I can't imagine having to face every day.
As the film opens, Angelique knows she is at the end of things. She still reports to the cabaret every night, and she still tries to make herself irresistible to the men who come to the club, but she rarely finds herself in demand. She drinks too much, she picks fights, and she seems to have a perpetually burning cigarette, all attempts to fill the increasing sense of loneliness that defines her. Her one regular client, a retired miner named Michel (Joseph Bour), has stopped coming in altogether, and she finally tracks him down to his house to talk to him and to find out what happened. Michel confesses that he can't take the cabaret anymore. He can't spend night after night shelling out for overpriced champagne and the momentary thrill of a lap dance. His feelings for Angelique have changed, and he pictures a real future with her, an actual shared life, and not just stolen moments of carnal promise in a public place. Angelique is moved by Michel's feelings, and she decides to take a chance on him. They begin to date, and very quickly, Michel asks her to marry him, telling her that time is not on their side. If they are going to build any sort of life together, he isn't willing to wait.
Some of the most intense memories of my life with my wife involve those early days, when she was starting to step into my world and when I was starting to step into hers, and “Party Girl” expertly charts the push and pull of this relationship as Michel meets Angelique's children, all adults now, and she meets his friends. What's clear is that Angelique has never really had this sort of relationship. There have been men, and clearly she created some sort of domestic life for her kids as they were growing up, but she was always independent, always free, always ready for the next kick, the next thrill, the next anything. Her efforts to become the person that Michel sees when he looks at her are presented here in very spare, unsentimental terms. There is a near-documentary feel to things, due in part to the way the film was cast. Angelique's kids are played by Mario Theis, Samuel Thies, Severine Litzenburger, and Cynthia Litzenburger. They are unmistakably family when you look at them, and the film never feels manufactured or forced. There is a very quiet, natural quality to even the most dramatic of scenes.
Ultimately, this is a movie about how hard it is for any of us to genuinely change who we are. We can try, and we may want it fervently, but the fundamentals of who we are get written very early in life, and by the age of 60, there's very little we can do to become someone else. I found the final half-hour of “Party Girl” to be almost unbearably sad and difficult, simply because of how expertly the film creates a sense of empathy for Angelique. The film never excuses her, never tries to make her life seem great. It simply offers up a portrait of this person who wants something more but who may not truly believe she deserves it. The self-loathing that creeps into her behavior seems to be part of who she is, part of every choice she's ever made. Little by little, we're given glimpses at the various failures of her life, but the film never once tries to land a giant melodramatic punch. The power of the film and the weight of it comes from the way these small things add up, and there is a moment near the end of the film that just crushed me, an admission of failure that feels like a complete surrender.
The performances in the film are spot-on, and Angelique, on screen for pretty much every minute of the film, strikes me as a richly imagined and fully-realized character. Joseph Bour's work as Michel is impeccable and without ego. He's not some romantic dolt who thinks he's going to sweep Angelique off her feet, but is instead a man who knows the score, but who believes in potential. Julien Poupard's photography is natural and striking, and it feels like something captured, not something staged.
One of the most dangerous things about going through an experience like a divorce is that it can convince you that you are not worth love, that you aren't capable of it, that you don't need it. It is easier to retreat and to numb the pain in some external way than it is to open your heart up to the same trauma that made you ache in the first place. Watching Angelique struggle to feel worthy of being happy is heart-breaking, and I wish someone in the film could convince her that she is deserving of the same love as anyone else, that her job is not the sum total of who she can be, and that opportunity is not something that will simply wait around for us to catch up with it.
In my own life, I find myself feeling hope for the first time in longer than I can remember, looking forward more often than looking back, and somehow, against all odds, ready to open my own heart once more. It is a terrifying feeling, but it is also an empowering one. I refuse to be defined by my failures. I refuse to let myself become shut down and afraid. But that is something I have to work at every day, and doubt and sorrow and anger and pain are all still simmering there, deep inside me, and I have no doubt that I am capable of spectacular self-sabotage. All I know is that life is opportunity, and we can either lean into it or run from it. Angelique spends the entire film somewhere between those two choices, and whichever choice she makes, the film makes it clear that it is not easy for her.
Me? I'll lean in. And I hope to God I never lose that ability.