Updated: Dec 4, 2021
Continuing our coverage of films in competition at this year's 11th edition of My French Film Festival is Hafsia Herzi's debut feature, You Deserve A Lover (Tu mérites un amour), which first screened during the Critics' Week at Cannes Film Festival in 2019. You can read my previous reviews of two short films: Anthony Lemaitre's Entracte (Intermission) here and Élodie Wallace's Motus (Not A Word) here.
The Short Films portion of the festival is free to watch online until February 15, but a full festival pass only costs €7.99 and gives you access to a diverse range of feature films, so I would highly recommend pursuing that option. For me, this particular film was the one that prompted me to buy the pass, and I wasn't disappointed by either the film or the festival.
Hafsia Herzi is my favourite French actress who I haven't seen enough of yet. I've enjoyed her work in Mektoub, My Love, and the short film Le baiser (Montmartre Kiss) - as well as the unfortunately titled Sex Doll - but there's still so much of her output I've missed. Which is why I was so excited to see You Deserve A Lover headlining My French Film Festival as it was another one of her starring roles, which also marked her debut as a writer and director.
That's not entirely accurate as Herzi first cut her teeth as a writer/director on the short film, Le Rodba, in 2010 (which I still need to track down) but this is her first feature film occupying those two roles. It's obviously something she enjoys doing, as a follow-up feature called Bonne Mère (starring Sabrina Benhamed) is now in post-production. Having watched You Deserve A Lover, I hope she plans to step behind the camera more, but without stepping away from being in front of it as well.
What I love about Herzi's acting is the understated quietness and presence she brings to each role, while still seeming totally natural. There's a sadness and fragility to her performances which suggests a vulnerability, but it's coupled with a harder edge bubbling just beneath the surface, making her appear almost dangerous. Those seemingly opposite forces make for compelling viewing as she draws you in and captures your attention - slowly immersing you in the world as seen and experienced through her eyes.
That contradiction carries over into her writing and the way she directs her performers as well. At first it took me a little while to get into the film, as the narrative felt somewhat disjointed or incomplete, but I slowly started to realise this was more about the moments Herzi chose to show us rather than spoon-feeding us the whole thing. It felt much less like a straight film, and more like a series of vignettes that painted a picture of her inner turmoil as she gradually lost herself in the fallout of a bad romance. Herzi acknowledged this herself in an interview conducted ahead of Critics' Week:
"As for the topic, I wanted to talk about love, this timeless taboo. Love is beautiful but it can knock you out cold. I wanted to share this horrendous pain, this moment the rug is suddenly pulled out from under your feet, where you don’t know who you are anymore. No-one is immune to heartbreaks, no matter how old they are, their social status, character or nationality. It’s universal. There’s no miracle cure. You all have our coping mechanisms. A broken heart can be felt like grief. You feel yourself dying or you wish the other dead, it’s both human and violent. We seldom see this in films. We’d rather talk about the beginning or the end of a relationship, but not about sorrow itself, the one that floors you completely, against which you fight to stay alive."
The film opens just after Lila (Hafsia Herzi) has broken up with Rémi (Jérémie Laheurte) for his continued infidelity. He decides to go to Bolivia on a 'soul-searching quest', but it's just another excuse for him to find new women and fresh experiences in a different place. Perhaps it's that, or just her newfound freedom (combined with a feeling of being lost) that sends Lila on her own quest of fresh experiences, and so the rest of the film chronicles these seemingly random encounters interspersed with the friends and people who are a part of her everyday life.
Herzi's own style was obviously an influence on the casting process, and you can see how it bleeds over into the natural performances of her actors in the film. Each has their own unique persona, but no one ever seems like they're 'acting' - it's just people living their lives on film, and they're made more interesting by the moments the director chooses to share. It almost feels like, in other films, we'd probably be shown the moments just before (or just after) the ones we see here, but instead we get to see these spaces between. It makes for compelling viewing because things aren't served up in neat little packages - the audience needs to do some work to get there.
The film is populated by a wonderful supporting cast, including Djanis Bouzyani as Lila's best friend, Ali; Sophie Garagnon and Brice Dulin as a pair of free-spirited swingers; and Myriam Djeljeli (who also starred with Herzi in Sex Doll) as one of Rémi's many (?) lovers. Each of them brings something new to the picture, although some end up taking something from Lila in the process. As it says in the film's synopsis: "Moving from one encounter to the next, between discussion, consolation and incitements to crazy love, Lila loses herself."
Fortunately there's hope to be found in the character of Charlie (Anthony Bajon), a young photographer, who also happens to be my favourite in the film. He first spots Lila in his uncle's cafe, and (like so many of us) he's entranced by Lila's presence and asks if he can photograph her for his art school portfolio. Lila agrees, which leads to a tastefully sensual photo-shoot, and a budding friendship between the two. Charlie's desire to photograph Lila stems from her resemblance to his favourite artist, Frida Kahlo, and it's his recital of her poem, You Deserve A Lover, which inspires the film's title:
You deserve a lover who wants you disheveled, with everything and all the reasons
that wake you up in a haste and the demons that won't let you sleep.
You deserve a lover who makes you feel safe, who can consume this world whole if he walks hand in hand with you; someone who believes that his embraces are a perfect match with your skin.
You deserve a lover who wants to dance with you, who goes to paradise every time
he looks into your eyes and never gets tired of studying your expressions.
You deserve a lover who listens when you sing, who supports you when you feel shame
and respects your freedom; who flies with you and isn't afraid to fall.
You deserve a lover who takes away the lies and brings you hope, coffee, and poetry."
In the same way that Herzi inspires her cast to be more natural, she has a very seamless way of interweaving elements of identity and culture into her work. She doesn't shy away from her North African roots, but embraces them openly and without explanation, such as in an early scene where she consults with Haje Ibrahim (Abdelkader Hoggui) in her efforts to win Rémi back. Rather than seeming out of place or confusing, this casual integration of unfamiliar culture is accepted within the context of the film, encouraging viewers to do their own research after the fact.
You Deserve A Lover provides an engaging glimpse into the emotional turmoil wrought by a traumatic break-up. It captures the feeling of what life is like as someone deals with their heartbreak and goes into tailspin, then propels you along to its ambiguous conclusion. The film ends just as enigmatically as it began - leaving some concern that it could all just happen again - but there's a glimmer of hope for Lila, and it's that same spark the audience takes away with them. I'd highly recommend checking this one out before the festival ends. Meanwhile, I'll be looking forward to Hafsia Herzi's future projects, while I continue to explore her already extensive back catalogue.