“When you choose a path, you go all the way.”
I’ve enjoyed a couple of films from director Cedric Klapisch–When the Cat’s Away and Un Air de Famille. Klapisch’s saccharine, fluff piece L’Auberge Espagnole, however, was a huge disappointment, so I was happy to find a darker film–even with its faults–in Not For Or Against (Ni Pour, Ni Contraire, Bien au Contraire).
Set mostly in Paris, Not For or Against is ultimately a crime caper film with psychological implications. The film doesn’t explore questions such as why a seemingly respectable, working class girl dives into a life of crime with gusto–although enough hints are dropped along the way to make this film a much better than average crime yarn. The film’s protagonist (and its most fascinating character) is Cathy (Marie Gillian)–a young struggling camerawoman living in Paris when her life abruptly changes one day. But does her life change for the better or for the worse?
Cathy freelances with her camera and one day she’s sent on a job where she meets a beautiful call girl. The hooker asks Cathy if she’d like to make a quick wad of cash, Cathy accepts and find herself meeting Jean (Vincent Elbaz). He takes a brief look at her and then she’s on her way to a life of crime, joining a band of 4 violent men–robbing and beating their way to a fortune.
Cathy has the sort of scrubbed-clean look that belies her behaviour. She’s in complete contrast to the hookers and dancers who parade through the scenes half-dressed. Cathy downplays her body by dressing in practical clothing, and while she certainly has the type of looks she could exploit, she doesn’t. Perhaps this is why Jean underestimates her, and while he’s obviously used to women using clothing (or the lack of it) as part of the sirens’ call, Cathy’s message seems to be decidedly nonsexual as she doesn’t try any of the old tricks to get his attention.
For about the first two-thirds of the film, I was riveted to the screen. Jean describes Cathy as a “vanilla chick” referencing her race but also her seeming blandness. But Cathy is far from bland or ordinary, and her actions in the first crime prove that (and win the admiration of the seasoned hoods).
The gang members have good times and bad times, but the final third of the film devolves into a typical caper, and this is where the film began to lose my interest. Cathy and her relationship with Jean are the two most fascinating aspects of the film, but neither is explored in any depth. Cathy’s relationship with Jean is undefined. That’s what makes it so intriguing–at first there seems to be a sexual energy between the two, but is Jean leading Cathy on? Or is it the other way around? At one point in the film, Jean tries to provoke a jealous reaction in Cathy. Jean seems simultaneously disappointed and disturbed by Cathy’s reaction.
While I think it works to avoid defining the exact dimensions of Jean and Cathy’s relationship, it’s a serious fault in the plot to not explore Cathy’s inner thoughts. There’s a moment in the film when Jean presents Cathy with an alternative and she thinks, “I figured the path marked evil was the better [one],” but after that insight, Cathy’s thoughts remain largely unexplored. What makes her tick remains a frustrating mystery–apart from the odd moments in her Paris apartment and scenes of her in her humble provincial home. To Cathy, crime represents a way out of her boring life, but exactly how much she calculates, playing a role to get what she wants are issues ignored by the plot. The fallout from the crime caper would seem to hint that what happens to Cathy is pure accident, but the last scene belies that.
Ultimately Not For or Against remains a fairly standard caper film with just the slightly unusual element of the bourgeois, seemingly respectable ‘good’ girl going off the rails. By focusing on the elaborate caper rather than the psychological aspects of the plot, and by ignoring insight in Cathy’s psyche, the film loses a chance to rise above its plot and it becomes more ordinary and a lot less interesting.
In French with subtitles.