Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham-Carter star in Sarah Gavron's drama about the foot soldiers of the early feminist movement
Jean-Paul Salomé's war film is a girls' own adventure set in occupied France
Occupation by enemy forces tends to divide loyalties, compromise allegiances, and force people to lead double lives. Something similar has happened to Jean-Paul Salomé's Female Agents - and not just to the titular characters. Salomé works hard from the outset to position his film as a serious, credible account of female Resistance fighters in occupied France - but he struggles to resist the occupation of his film by misplaced cliché and awkward melodrama, undermining any claim to authenticity.
On the one hand, Female Agents strives for realism. The title sequence is a montage of genuine period photos of wartime women. Actions are regularly punctuated by captions that bind them to a particular time and place - it's shot almost entirely in the original locations. The film ends with a sober dedication to the 'victims of Nazi barbarity.' Even the title (or at least the original French title, literally 'Women Of The Shadow'), allies the film to that most unromantic and sombre of Resistance movies, Jean-Pierre Melville's The Army In The Shadows (1969). And of course the main character here, Louise Desfontaine (Marceau), is inspired (if no more than that) by the real-life partisan operative Lise Villameur (née De Baissac).
On the other hand, most of the other characters are pure fabrication, and the incidents of the plot derive less from reality than from the war-time fantasies of The Dirty Dozen (1967) or Where Eagles Dare (1968).
In the build-up to D-Day, Louise and her brother Pierre (Boisselier) must recruit, trick or blackmail a rag-tag team of women - death-row prostitute Jeanne (Depardieu), religiously devout saboteur Gaëlle (François), apolitical showgirl Suzy (Gillain) - into a mission to prevent, at any cost, the details of the Allies' landing plans from falling into the hands of the Nazis.
Their assignment to rescue a compromised geologist from a Nazi-run hospital soon becomes even more perilous when, joined by Italian Jewish radio operator Maria (Sansa), they must race to Paris to eliminate the head of Nazi counter-intelligence Colonel Heindrich (a show-stopping Bleibtreu) before he can pass on vital information, acquired through torture, to Berlin.
In other words, this is essentially boys' own adventure, only with the added twist that it is conducted by women- and while the sexual allure, biological imperatives and romantic notions of these girls certainly have their part to play in the shrill drama that unfolds, these very elements serve equally to sabotage the film's feminist ambitions, reducing the female characters to the crude stereotypes of mother, whore, nun or pretty-headed lover.
In fact, so preoccupied is Salomé with the undoubted accuracy of his period details and the fast-cutting tension of his set-pieces that he seems to have forgotten about issues of characterisation altogether, instead relying on the strength of his cast to fill in the blanks. Unfortuntely, Marceau, Depardieu and François have so little with which to work that they manage to convey no more of these women than their steely determination - while the sexual tension between lovesick Heindrich and his old flame Suzy, though crucial to the plot, gives rise to some of the film's most preposterously implausible moments (and there are quite a few of these).
Caught in the no man's land between verisimilitude and melodrama, Jean-Paul Salomé's Female Agents fails to settle on a consistent tone, ending up a 'serious' war film only in the sense that it is never intentionally funny.
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