Saturday, March 23, 2013

Neglected Gem #39: Emporte-Moi (Set Me Free) (1999)

Hanna Cohn (Karine Vanasse), the adolescent protagonist of Set Me Free (Emporte-moi) by the Québecois filmmaker Léa Pool, is tender and angry, needy and rebellious by turns. This marvelous film, set mostly in Montreal in the early sixties, begins with Hanna’s first period, and it’s about her attempts to figure herself out. It feels autobiographical – movies are crucial to Hanna’s efforts to define herself (she falls in love with Anna Karina as the prostitute Nana in Godard’s My Life to Live), and at the end, a beloved teacher (Nancy Huston, who worked on the screenplay with Pool and two other women) lets her borrow a Super 8 camera for the summer and she uses it to record her life. It seems we’re meant to see these impressionistic images as the genesis of the childhood portrait that would emerge, eventually, in the form of Set Me Free.

Hanna lives with her Jewish father (Miki Manojlovic), her Catholic mother (Pascale Bussières), and her older brother Paul (Alexandre Mérineau) in a cramped, ugly apartment that can only be accessed through the fire escape. They live on top of one another, and on the way in or out, they’re likely to run into the landlady, who makes unwelcome personal comments about them and demands the rent, which is forever late. Hanna’s mother works long days at a sewing machine in a small clothing factory, and when she finally gets home, her husband, who has trouble holding onto jobs, expects her to type his poems, which is how he defines himself. They’ve never married, and though Hanna declares her illegitimacy proudly in school, along with her official lack of a religious identity (since Catholicism is passed down through the father and Judaism through the mother) – she offers these as proof of free thinking and bohemianism in opposition to the conventional bourgeois culture – you get the sense that marriage is actually something David, her father, has held back from her mother, as a way of punishing her. He calls her terrible names and slaps her when he’s frustrated with how his writing is going (and it never seems to be going well). Both Hanna’s parents are very complicated: he’s a Holocaust survivor and dreadfully moody and demanding; she’s depressed and takes pills, either to put herself to sleep or, on occasion, in attempts at suicide. It’s a hardscrabble, difficult home, both for Hanna and for Paul (whom she’s close to). Officially it’s a Jewish home – David says the prayer before the Sabbath meal – but it doesn’t feel like one, because the mother’s presence imputes a distinctly French Catholic aura to it. And when the kids aren’t sufficiently quiet and serious during supper while their father listens to reports of the Middle East conflict on the radio, he launches his favorite complaint: that they’re a family of Mongols, Gentiles who don’t understand or respect their Jewish roots.

director Lea Pool
The picture has a classic coming-of-age structure, and links to other movies about adolescence – The 400 Blows, The Member of the Wedding, Wish You Were Here. Pool follows Hanna’s efforts to get close to each of her parents – to her father, whom she boasts of but who drives her into screaming rages, and to her mother, whom she tries to emulate, but who is too tormented by private demons, too overworked and fatigued, too much on edge, to be sufficiently supportive of her daughter. Both of them love her but can’t help her, and she isn’t comfortable eating ham and observing the Catholic rituals on summer-vacation visits to her maternal grandmother (played by the distinguished French-Canadian actress Monique Mercure) in the country – especially since her grandmother and her father make no bones about their dislike for each other. Pool gives Hanna one lovely, intimate scene with each of her parents. She goes skating with her mom, who skids and crosses the ice with difficulty. What redeems this image of a miserably unhappy woman is the obvious delight she takes in her daughter’s gracefulness, but this moment of pleasure can’t last: when Hanna tackles her, her laughter turns abruptly to tears. In another scene, her father, who always presses books on her and wants her to love literature as much as he does, hands her The Diary of Anne Frank as a sickbed present when she’s down with a fever and tells her a story about his wife, a dancer, who was separated from him in the camps. He’s never had proof of her death, he says, and sometimes he imagines that she survived, too, and made a new life for herself after the war. Both these scenes are deeply moving, and they provide some grounding for Hanna in her relationships with the two haunted, unstable, impossible people who happen to be her parents. It’s important for her to work out the ways in which her personality overlaps with each of theirs before she can work out who she is apart from them.

Anna Karina in My Life to Live
The movie also covers her sexual coming of age. Hanna falls in love with a classmate, Laura (Charlotte Chisteler), whom she meets at a dance, but Laura also has a crush on Paul; and she falls in love with her teacher, whom she sees smoking in the school playground in the same nonchalant way Karina does in My Life to Live, and who takes her side against the stupid, bigoted comments of a nasty-minded classmate. When Hanna echoes Karina’s lines in a composition – just as she imitates her loose, improvised, devil-may-care style when she dances to her brother’s garage band – the teacher recognizes them, and Hanna is overjoyed to find that they love the same movie. But the teacher warns her that Nana dies tragically at the end of the picture, and she counsels Hanna to find her own words to express her own life. It’s good advice, but Hanna learns by emulation, like all adolescents, and Karina’s amoral toughness and her declaration of freedom and self-responsibility are irresistible to her at this age. When she and her dad are approached in a fish market by a drunken prostitute, David instructs his daughter not to judge the woman (he tells her a story about a whore who risked her life to hide him during the war), and Hanna, instinctively drawn to her because of My Life to Live, suddenly feels close to him because they share an unorthodox respect for her. Hanna goes to the bakery for her father and the baker, inviting her into the kitchen, feels her up and then crassly gives her money for her reluctant favors. She pockets a roll on her way out, as if – Nana style – she’s protesting that he hasn’t paid her as much as she’s worth. But at home she’s not so tough: she touches the breasts the baker mauled and feels dirty and sad. And her longing to try on Karina’s character leads to the movie’s most upsetting scene, where she loses her virginity.

Karine Vanasse in Emporte-Moi (Set Me Free)
Set Me Free brings Hanna close to tragedy and then pulls her back over the edge. Her teacher tells her, “There’s no need to destroy yourself like this,” and by the end she’s integrated that message, and moreover she’s found her own style and a comfort within it. Pool’s movie is small-scale and quirky. It reminded me of other girls’ coming-of-age stories – A World Apart, which was directed by a man (Chris Menges) but written by a woman (Shawn Slovo, retelling her own story), and the1994 version of Little Women, which was written and directed by women (Robin Swicord and Gillian Armstrong) – where all the touchstones are feminine and the sensibility is strikingly, fascinatingly different from the male adolescent narratives that movies are full of. At the end of Set Me Free, Hanna meets her mother in the country, looking refreshed and happy for the first time, and the last, affecting images are of the two of them in an embrace. Hanna’s relationship to her mother, ultimately, is the most important one in her life. Pool has dedicated the picture to her own mother and to her daughter.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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