Coming at the always-complicated adoption issue from another side for her second feature, Korean-born, French-raised writer-director Ounie Lecomte widens her social and thematic scope in Looking for Her to utterly winning effect. In some ways more ambitious than her semi-autobiographical debut, A Brand New Life, which detailed a young Korean girl’s abandonment and eventual overseas adoption, Looking for Her touches on thorny issues like the right of adoptees to know who their birth parents are, the birth mother’s right to anonymity, identity and the specter of racial prejudice as it applies to children of mixed heritage. As sensitive and thoughtful as it is delicately challenging, Looking should find itself with a healthy festival run, and limited release in Europe and North America isn’t out of the question.
The dual-stream narrative starts with physiotherapist Elisa (Geronimo’s Celine Sallette, recalling a young Charlotte Rampling) on the train to her hometown of Dunkerque, where she was born and left for adoption over 30 years earlier. Her marriage to Alex (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) is collapsing, and so she decides to return to the coastal shipbuilding town and finally locate her birth mother and learn about her past. She takes her elementary school-aged son Noe (Elyes Aguis) with her, though he clearly wants to go back to Paris — at least at first.
An imperfect but acutely observed and deeply felt adoption drama.
Lecomte and co-writer Agnes de Sacy take their time detailing the disappointment of Elisa’s life in Dunkerque and Lecomte doesn’t waste time, posing the tricky question of whose rights are more important almost immediately during a meeting at an agency that specializes in locating birth parents. There’s no right answer and Lecomte juggles our pendulous sympathies perfectly. Despite her pleas, Elisa is informed in no uncertain terms the woman wants nothing to do with her.
The film’s original title in French, Je vous souhaite d’être follement aimée, translates roughly as “I wish you to be loved madly,” a sentiment that applies in particular to lonely public school worker and part time animal shelter volunteer Annette (Anne Benoit, My Golden Days), the film’s second player. Annette lives downstairs from her over-protective mother, Renee (Francoise Lebrun) and is the butt of jokes (she’s called “the pit bull”) at the school she works at — the one Noe attends. Tripping over some dog leashes and pulling a muscle sends her to Elisa (it’s no surprise their stories cross) and the two strike up a cordial, if service-based friendship.
That Annette and Elisa are the separated mother and daughter isn’t much of a revelation, and it’s not meant to be. What Looking for Her is about at its core is whether or not we are prepared to deal with the answers if we start asking questions; neither woman initially likes what she finds. Elisa worries Annette is a bigot; Annette is surprised by Elisa’s heritage. Annette’s clumsy attempts at ensuring Elisa that Noe is actually a good kid opens up a can of worms neither is prepared to deal with. Both Noe’s father and Elisa’s are of Arabic descent, and this ethnic tension forms the backbone of Lecomte’s exploration of cultural displacement and the kind of subtle, casual racism that leeches into everyday life. Lecomte renders this unpleasant reality nicely, particularly in relation to mixed-heritage people that don’t effortlessly fit into either group and are often ethnic “enough” for a given agenda. The mother of one of Noe’s eventual playmates asks where Noe’s father is from, surprised when Elisa responds with Champagne and not Morocco or Algeria. Annette’s family doesn’t welcome the reminder of dalliance that “destroyed” Annette’s life.
On the surface Looking for Her looks overstuffed with plot threads, but they’re woven together seamlessly, with one leading into the next and never feeling forced or, thankfully, preachy (courtesy of editing by Tina Baz). The film has a decidedly feminine (for lack of a better word) touch that explores Elisa and Annette’s intimacy issues, ironic considering how connected they seem during therapy. Cinematographer Caroline Champetier uses a fairly standard language throughout Elisa’s personal journey — she’s traveling backwards on the train back to Dunkerque, spaces from the past are blurry — but she also exploits the city’s industrial personality to full effect, exploiting the coldness of steel whenever possible.
The entire film hinges on Sallette and Benoit’s performances, though, and both are equal to the task, by turns frustrating, cowardly, furious and regretful. There’s no contrived happy ending, but a thick sliver of hope that the two will find some kind of balance. Looking for Her isn’t perfect; it’s cursed with a classic, or clichéd, clubbing scene when Elisa’s stress levels become unmanageable (it’s always a night of drinking, dancing and anonymous sex), and a recitation from Andre Breton’s L’Amour fou in the closing moments feels heavy handed and unnecessary, but it’s nonetheless an assured sophomore effort that’s emotionally affecting without being maudlin.
Production company: Gloria Films, Pictanovo
Cast: Celine Sallette, Anne Benoit, Elyes Aguis, Francoise Lebrun, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Pascal Elso
Director: Ounie Lecomte
Screenwriter: Ounie Lecomte, Agnes de Sacy
Producer: Laurent Lavole
Director of photography: Caroline Champetier
Production designer: Sebastien Danos
Costume designer: Elfie Carlier
Editor: Tina Baz
Music: Ibrahim Maalouf
Casting director: Patricia Guyotte
World sales: Films Distribution
No rating, 101 minutes