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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Barbara, an aspiring film director, is seen visiting a tarot card
reader. The images that come out do not augur her a happy life. Her new
project is to bring her camera to a prison outside Paris to have a few
inmates tell their stories about what got them there, in the first
place, as well as to talk about themselves. The film will be basically
improvisational in its content with hardly a written screenplay, just
an outline to let the prisoners act on their memories.
An older inmate, Michel, clearly falls for the beautiful Barbara, who is separated from her husband, Sergei. The attraction between director and actor becomes the driving force in the making of the film. One of the rules imposed on Barbara and her crew is no fraternizing with the men behind bars, something that proves impossible to contain the passion Michel shows for Barbara, an emotion she shares with this man with a criminal record.
Things get complicated when Michel asks Barbara to negotiate to receive money from an illegal transaction he is about to perform. Barbara, a woman in love, does not hesitate to go along with Michel. Unfortunately, details of the deal is discovered. Barbara is accused of aiding and abetting a criminal to do an illegal business from jail. She confesses her love to the warden, but she is banned from further contact with Michel. As a favor, Barbara and Michel are allowed to be married in jail, after all, he only had less than two years for his release.
This film is based on a true story. Brigitte Sy, the director, is recounting her own experience interacting with inmates in that prison. Ms. Sy surprises us with this film that shows the reality of prison life. She stages her picture in realistic ways, sparing no punches. The oppressiveness of the environment works well in the film. We are sure Ms. Sy has taken liberties in order to make the film more palatable to audiences. The screenplay was co-written with Gaelle Mace.
Ronit Elkabetz, with her dark looks, makes a wonderful Barbara. The emotions her character is feeling is clearly reflected on her face, which registers all the nuances of the almost impossible romance with a jailed prisoner. The other surprise in the film is Carlo Brandt, a character actor that creates a lot of heat every time he and Ms. Elkabetz are in close contact. The supporting cast seems to be made out of non professionals.
Frederic Serve contributed to the stark atmosphere of life inside prison with his claustrophobic photography. Daniel Mille composed the incidental music for the film.
I watched this at the Berlin Festival this year and while I had no idea
what it was about at the beginning, it did capture my attention. The
characters are really well drawn and played. It is played from a
woman's point of view, but as can be seen by the other reviewer (up til
now), it does have an effect on men too.
Still its human drama and slow pace will not appeal to the masses and it feels a bit like a TV movie too (drama wise that is, though TV movies, especially the ones coming from America, have upped the ante). I would suggest a rent first, then buy if you liked it method, just to be sure not to be disappointed.
I saw "Les mains libres" at the Berlinale 2011 with very low expectations. As it is usually the case at film festivals, these are the best moments. The Story of Barbara and Michel is one of the most stunning performances I've ever seen in cinema. The tension between the two characters is extremely high. In some of the closer scenes you can nearly see the electricity between them. Ronit Elkabetz's presence on screen is overwhelming and Carlo Brandt is such a soft and gentle actor. My female company at the screening labeled it a woman film but I have to disagree cause I was equally touched by it. It is a mostly tragic movie about the real live of director Brigitte Sy and my highlight out of 12 movies from the Berlinale 2011.
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