Is 'Party Girl' a Film, Documentary or Reality Show?

This experimental film is too predictable, despite its moving and poignant scenes.

Party Girl Written and directed by Marie Amachoukeli, Claire Burger, Samuel Theis; with Angelique Litzenburger, Joseph Bour, Samuel Theis, Mario Theis, Severine Litzenburger, Cynthia Litzenburger

Israeli moviegoers currently have a chance to see two experimental films at local theaters. The more significant of the two is “Boyhood,” a picture that American director Richard Linklater shot over a 12-year period, a few days each summer, following the hero as he grew from a 6-year-old boy into a young man of 18. The second film, “Party Girl,” is mainly interesting because it is a cross between a feature and a documentary, with some elements of reality TV thrown in. The different genre components combine into a result I might have admired, if only it were a bit more distinctive.

The movie, which opened the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival and won the Camera d’Or prize for best first feature film, was directed by Marie Amachoukeli, Claire Burger and Samuel Theis, three friends who studied together at the prestigious French film school La Femis. The three had already collaborated on short films; the first of them, which they made as a final project in school, was about Theis’s family – as is “Party Girl,” their first long feature, which follows the engagement and marriage of Theis’s mother, Angelique Litzenburger. She appears as herself, and so do her children: Samuel Theis, his brother, Mario Theis, and their two sisters, Severine Litzenburger and Cynthia Litzenburger.

The movie is set on the French-German border Angelique, who looks to be about 60, her black hair pulled back and her eyes heavily made up, has spent her life working in cabarets – something between a dance club and a strip joint, where her job is to flirt with the customers and get them to buy overpriced drinks. Angelique likes her job; she enjoys the laid-back attitude and her friends from work. Just when her career is reaching its end, Michel (Joseph Bour), a retired coal miner who is a regular at the club, falls in love with her and proposes marriage. “Party Girl” shows how doing the right thing – and for Angelique, who has spent her life on the margins of society (it is implied that her children may all have different fathers), marrying the kindhearted, heavyset Michel would be the right thing to do at her age – is not always an easy principle to follow.

In preparation for the wedding, Angelique moves in with Michel and is reunited with her children, including teenage Cynthia, who has been living in a foster home. These changes bring Angelique into the middle-class life that, consciously or not, she has spent her life avoiding. It is not easy for her, in part because she is not in love with Michel and does not find him physically attractive. One of the best things about “Party Girl” is that it avoids interpreting Angelique in either ideological or overly-simple psychological terms. That’s just who she is: she prefers the freedom the cabaret gave her to the routine of the bourgeois family she has now chosen to join. Even though her son is one of the directors, the movie does not try to make us identify or empathize with Angelique (a fact especially evident in the rather cruel ending), and that only makes the result stronger.

Knowing that Angelique and her children are playing themselves, documenting their own experiences, makes “Party Girl” intriguing; but beyond the somewhat voyeuristic curiosity the movie arouses, and Angelique’s powerful screen presence, this fact does not really add much. After all, we are accustomed by now to seeing people playing themselves, on television and in film, in a reality that is at once documented and contrived. There are some moving, even poignant scenes, especially those that explore Angelique’s relationship with her children, and the film manages to avoid sentimentality (which might have overwhelmed the result, especially when it comes to her reunion with Cynthia, whom she gave away and has not seen for a long time; the scenes between them might easily have lapsed into melodrama). Shot with a handheld camera, “Party Girl” also features moments that seem believable in their realistic portrayal of the everyday. But the plot of the movie seems too predictable, and occasionally the result succumbs to blandness. The fact that the characters are really the people in the story is supposed to make up for that, but it does not always manage to.

The direction of “Party Girl” is fairly routine, and the filmmakers’ attempt to combine the components of feature and documentary does not produce a unique or original result. It seems as though the experiment, which appeared to the directors so innovative and bold, does not in the end contribute all that much. Ultimately this is yet another movie about an older woman coming to terms with her age, sexuality and chosen lifestyle, but “Party Girl” handles these themes with less depth than previous pictures – for example, Chilean director Sebastian Lelio’s 2013 “Gloria,” which explored the same ideas with more energy, sharpness and emotional power. The experiment in “Party Girl” is only that, an experiment – and a minor one, just like the movie it has yielded.