The shot I remember best from A Single Girl is of Virginie Ledoyen’s face in profile, nearly filling the screen as she changes her clothes. The camera watches from across the room as Ledoyen pulls off her shirt, but then cuts respectfully to the close shot, granting her modesty but never looking away. The movie has a confidence in this lovely face, a conviction that sometimes, it’s enough for us to simply watch.
It’s true — Ledoyen’s face is something to see, and her nearly prim, perfectly composed presence helps move the film. Equally propulsive is the tension generated as director Benoit Jacquot steadicams his way into elevators, down hallways, and through the portals of guest rooms at a Paris hotel. The brilliance of A Single Girl is its elevation of daily routine and its careful exploitation of voyeurism. When the movie really works, we’re following Ledoyen around in real time, as she learns her trade as a room service worker. When it doesn’t work, it’s because the film is busily justifying its own existence, as in a framing device involving two conversations between Valerie and her boyfriend.
Those conversations are key to the film, because they set up the conflict inside Valerie’s head as she goes through the motions of her first day on the job. On her way to work, she tells her boyfriend that she’s pregnant. She has to leave right away, but promises that she’ll find a way to come back in an hour, if he’ll wait. Naturally, he does, and what she tells him then is sort of a foregone conclusion — but she’s plenty introspective as she walks the halls, crossing into the private lives of hotel guests and assessing the politics of the workplace.
A young Russian director once became famous for what’s known as “the Kuleshov effect.” As part of a series of investigations into the nature of film editing, Lev Kuleshov took raw footage of actor Ivan Mozhukhin’s face and intercut it with unrelated images — a bowl of soup, a child in a coffin, and a child playing with toys. Shown the footage with no introduction, audiences praised the actor’s sensitive portrayals of hunger, grief, and joy. The joke, of course, was on them, since no such “portrayal” ever existed on screen or even in the actor’s mind — the emotion was created by the audience (and herein may lie the key to many a great performance).
I’m not suggesting that A Single Girl plays similar editing tricks. As a matter of fact, the edits are painstakingly naturalistic, necessarily preserving the “real time” progression of the filmed events. But the whole film may be a sort of a trick. Given the information that Valerie is pregnant, we viewers can then project our own imagined doubts, anxieties, and frustrations onto Ledoyen’s largely emotionless face. Perhaps this is a partial explanation of the nearly universal raves Ledoyen has been receiving for this role — truly, what we “see” up on screen is essentially a projection of ourselves, the ways that we might experience a similar life crisis, onto a comfortably beautiful human specimen.
This is not to diminish anyone’s estimation of her talent, since it’s hard to overestimate the value of comfortable beauty in the cinema — pundits are claiming that this film’s audiences are witness to the rise of one of the next great stars of French cinema, and I have no reason to doubt those assertions. Any young actor should be so lucky as to get this kind of role. Ledoyen seemed similarly aloof in Oliver Assayas’ excellent Cold Water (which never received a U.S. release), but in that film she was a world-ravaged enigma, nearly untouchable. Here, we’re encouraged to get up close.
What’s really terrific about A Single Girl is its simplicity. Except for a lengthy, misguided coda, this is compelling in the best way — it’s nearly guerilla filmmaking. When the camera follows Ledoyen as she charges down Paris sidewalks, bystanders get out of her way, gaping quizzically at the camera — Jacquot and company didn’t even have the luxury of roping off the streets before shooting their exteriors. Seat-of-your-pants filmmaking is almost by definition a labor of love, and such is the crazy energy of the bond between filmmaker and performer that everyone else in the wide world just bounces off of Ledoyen as she gets from point A to point B. It is indeed a pleasure just to watch.