It could just be lack of exposure (or adventure) on my part, but I’ve become accustomed to (and almost expect), films set in modern day France and featuring black people, to be about immigration, social marginalisation, disaffected black youth… all of which tend to serve up images of grit, grime, poverty… So Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s My Friend Victoria, was something of a surprise.
Set in Paris, the film is based on a Doris Lessing story, Victoria and the Staveneys, and tells the story of Victoria, a young black woman of no remarkable talent, drive or ambition. The story is narrated by Fanny (Nadia Moussa), Victoria’s literature devouring adopted sister and friend, and starts when Victoria is 8 years old and has to spend a night in the home of a white, liberal, middle-class family. That one night, which is easily forgotten by the family, has a profound effect on Victoria, bordering on obsession. Her next contact with the family is several years later with the younger son, with whom she has an affair the summer before he goes away to university in the US. This short, affectionate but not particularly passionate affair results in a child, Marie, who is welcomed into the family at around the same age that Victoria was when she first met them.
What is remarkable about this film is its ability to remain engaging despite its lack of drama or overt tension. Victoria seems to get the boy (twice, at least), gets jobs (several, in fact, none of which she seems particularly fond of or committed to), and what little family she does have, loves her completely and unconditionally. However, with Victoria (Guslagie Malanda) portrayed weightlessly as an outsider, a loner, and drifter, of sorts, there’s a pervading sense of pathos and melancholy – thanks, in no small part to Fanny’s third party narration both bridging and emphasising the distance between audience and subject, even as it seeks to delve into her most personal life.
Rather than a character study, the film is a subtle and well-observed critique on class, identity and race in Paris. The open minds and arms of the liberal white family who warmly embrace Victoria and their new-found daughter/niece/grand-daughter, isn’t totally devoid of casual, even if unintentional, racism, and highlights the gulf between those who can afford the luxury of dipping into urban life (both literally in terms of culture and conurbation) in order to find a sense of grounding, social responsibility and awareness, and those who have no choice but to go with the flow, whether swimming or floating.
Whilst far from being your typical white saviour film (the family here is way too self-aware and anxious not to be seen as such), there is a sense that willingly accepting, or even actively seeking out, the affections of white society is any black persons best hope of finding comfort in modern day France, even if only for your kids (in Victoria’s case), if not yourself (as in Fanny’s). Although a loving black intra-racial relationship is portrayed, the best and most lasting alternative to white affection and acceptance would seem to be an altogether more gritty, passionate attitude of anger and attrition, as glimpsed very briefly in the teenaged Sekou (Fanny’s brother) and his friends, who seemed to be visiting from a different kind of French film altogether – one populated with disaffected black youth, in a milieu of grit, grime, poverty and the threat of social unrest.
My Friend Victoria screens at London Film Festival on the 10th, 12th and 15th October.