(13/07/08)

"Candles are for the dead, not the living"

The recent surge in 80s reflection (Son of Rambow, This is England) and the revival of decades’ stale franchises to a nostalgic audience passing the baton to the next generation (Indiana Jones, Rambo) has had an effect of reviving more traditional forms of film-making, techniques that hark to more crafted times when handheld shakey-cam was only very sparingly used and generally frowned upon.

Stand up proud then Female Agents, a film that harks back to the old fashioned ‘mission gone bad’ genre of gung-ho war films typified by such guilty classics as Where Eagles Dare and The Dirty Dozen. Naturally though there are concessions to modern sensibilities in the use of occasional CGI and the jittery debris that follows tightly framed explosions, but these are fleeting stylistic flourishes in what is unashamedly old-school direction, and better for it. The torture scenes however do feel particularly in line with a more brutalised form of such instances, as typified by the "now even harder" James Bond of Casino Royale but also recall the savagery of The Battle of Algiers. That said, and with its real messages about sacrifice for your country, Female Agents is at heart a solid, sumptuously shot Girls’ Own Adventure.

Recently widowed Louise Desfontaine (Sophie Marceau), a former French resistance fighter forced to flee her home country is joined by her brother and a small team of disparate operatives to execute a covert mission back in France. Her companions, not all willing, are recruited by SEO – Winston Churchill’s special intelligence service with a carte blanche remit to see through any mission, by any means. And their mission is of vital importance; to rescue a geologist, crash landed into Normandy and badly injured, who is currently in a secure hospital awaiting inevitable interrogation from the Colonel Heindrich, the Nazi head of counter-intelligence. It’s vital they get to him for, should he crack under the Nazis’ cruel methods of information extraction, it would scupper the whole of the elaborately planned D-Day landings and even result in German victory. The fate of the world rests on the shoulders of five unlikely women and one wounded geologist.

For much of its running time Female Agents gives apparently contradictory messages to its audience – on the one hand it is a moving account of the struggles of women in a time of war, women either trained or forced to push themselves to the limits to obtain freedom, either for themselves, their country or both. This is a film about sacrifice, betrayal, politics, survival and unthinkable atrocity.

On the other hand it’s a ‘whoop out loud’ air-punching action flick, which uses its crowd-pleasing moments to alternate between exhilarating battles and nail-biting tension. Similarly the characters are torn between realistic roles with well-rounded backgrounds and cartoon-like icons for easily audience identification – the sniper and widowed leader (Louise), the ex-prostitute doing time for killing her pimp (Jeanne – Julie Depardieu), the youthful explosives expert, the undercover Italian contessa and, naturally, the ideal character for an undercover mission – the inexperienced dancing girl (Suze – Marie Gillain). It sounds absurd but makes perfect sense in the context of the film’s events and helps make for superior entertainment, albeit with a frequently sombre undertone.

It’s as though director Salomé (who co-wrote the screenplay) has a need to convey the unsung heroines of the other French resistance, the English led SEO, to a public that are largely unaware of their valuable contribution to the war effort but feels that, in order to do so, he needs to make a genre film. For the most part this combination of documented earnestness (the events portrayed here happened in a roundabout way and the SEO did play a vital role in the war effort – Female Agents was originally inspired by the life of Lise Villameur, a key agent for the SEO) and guns-a-blazing thrills works, partly because of the lush cinematography but mainly because of the conviction of the film’s leads.

The way the characters interact with each other, exposing their weaknesses and prejudices in increasingly hostile environments, makes the audience genuinely root for their cause, a cause that could conceivably end up failing – these are harsh times and the agents face death and torture in the line of their duty. Neither are the Nazi characters portrayed as total monsters – despite their barbarity, they are shown to have human feelings too, albeit polluted by power and bloodlust. Indeed, central to the film is the relationship between Colonel Heindrich and Suze, a relationship that should have ended before the film’s opening.

Female Agents recognises the courage of women during wartime and brings the audience’s attention to the little reported activities of the SEO but its main purpose is to provide great entertainment and a cracking story, which it delivers. Some may dismiss it as puff or scoff at the lack of depth, but it succeeds as a solid, if incongruous, diversion.

Female Agents is currently playing across the world.