France seems to have embraced digital video technology whole-heartedly, given the number of French films that use it for an unabashedly low-fi effect, probably even more than most Dogme 95 films. Last year there was Baise-Moi (directed by Virginie Despentes) which employed the visual tactics of hardcore porn to devastating (and much-discussed) effect. Three years ago the delightfully quirky Nationale 7 (directed by Jean Pierre Sinapi) won a deserved prize at the London Film Festival. Then there’s Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and Christophe Loizillon’s Me and My Camera, which put video right at the centre of the action with a protagonist whose life revolved around his camera.
Ma Vie, by the directing duo Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau, who made the gay road movie Drôle de Felix three years ago, falls neatly into this category of DV features coming out of a less stereotypical France which, while not completely abandoning narrative, improvise on its codes.
The context of Ma Vie, structured like a video diary, is very simple. 16-year-old Etienne (Jimmy Tavares) is an ice-skater in Rouen who’s still a virgin and is determined to lose it. He lives with his single mother, a well-kept, loving, forty-something woman (Ariane Ascaride) who develops a relationship with Etienne’s geography teacher (Jonathan Zaccai). Meanwhile, while Etienne trains for the French cup, he and his friend Ludovic (Lucas Bonnifat) spend the time making confessions to the camera, or filming Etienne’s mother (along with anything else that happens in front of the lens).
In a nutshell, this is a film about a teenager’s sexual awakening. Etienne’s lingering gaze towards his geography teacher-cum-‘father-in-law’ reveals more about himself than he was expecting, with the camera being used as the instrument of his self-discovery. But because nothing is made too clear to the viewer – as things are never too clear in a teenager’s mind – and the audience enters this micro-universe of ordinariness almost like an accidental witness.
The format isn’t an easy one to get used to, as events take shape very subtly and it takes some time to see through what looks deceptively like a slice-of-life piece. But the directors are sharper than that, and behind the apparent seamlessness of the film is a careful balance between improvisation and directorial control. They’ve also deliberately avoided letting the film turn into a parody of ‘reality TV’. The presence of the camera as a character, and the fact that the main character does most of the filming, creates the distance that is normally absent in the TV genre.
If there is a problem with this film, it’s the odd moments of overindulgence – leaving the camera on the floor while it’s still on, for instance – but these occasional lapses don’t undermine the overall sensitivity of Ma Vie, and its grasp of a very contemporary way of looking at the world. And it’s another film that proves that mini-DV is more than just a cheap alternative to celluloid.