Thursday, February 16, 2023

Film Review: A Plein Temps (2021) and Emily the Criminal (2022)


Both these films feature single women facing the pain, drudgery, and precariousness of low-paid work in the service sector, and, while they're thematically linked, the two films highlight the differences between their two countries, in dramatic terms, of how working-class people are presented. 

A Plein Temps (Full-Time), the French entry, covers a week in the life of Julie, a single mother of two young children who's trying to juggle childcare, a long daily commute into Paris, a demanding job as head chambermaid in a five-star hotel, and an upcoming job interview with a marketing company (she has work experience/degree in marketing) that could significantly improve her finances. Her challenging life is made harder in this particular week thanks to a public transit strike which is making her late for everything, a child minder who's complaining about how long she has to supervise Julie's kids, and an ex-husband who's late with his alimony payment. This doesn't sound like a thriller, but it most definitely is, one of the best I've seen recently. The pace is relentless, as is Julie's busy, micro-crisis filled life, and we share her stress from the opening minutes of the film right to its final, satisfying, moment. 

Julie is a sympathetic character, but the film's smart enough not to make her a saint. We can see she's made some poor choices (living so far from Paris, for example), and it's even hinted that she might be more to blame for her failed marriage than her ex. More dramatically, when she asks/cajoles another chambermaid to help her fiddle her work hours so she can sprint off to a job interview, she ends up costing them both their jobs. What stands out about Julie is her determination to keep plowing on with her life, trying to do her best, even as the world keeps throwing knuckleballs at her. But in this regard she's like the vast majority of working-class people: she has no choice but to keep her head down and work hard and harder, because there's no easy or simple alternative. And what makes her character and story so powerful is the absolute relatability of the challenges she's faced with. Anyone who's ever experienced life with a crap job, not enough money or time, and the demands of parenting, will see parts of themselves in Julie. 

The title character of Emily the Criminal is in her late 20s, works as a food delivery person, has an art degree that's not doing anything for her, and a mountain of student debt. If Julie's extra burden is her kids, Emily's is an old felony conviction for assault that's a red flag for potential employers. And it doesn't help that she's got a flinty personality and a short fuse. Feeling desperate, Emily follows up a tip from a co-worker about some quick, if risky, money to be made as part of a credit card fraud ring. Before you can say WTF?, Emily becomes a sub-contractor for the credit card fraud ring, has an affair with one of the main fraudsters, and gets to take part in a car chase and a home invasion before ending up on the run in Panama, where she starts her own fraud ring. There's even a small dog in peril! So, not the most relatable example of coping with contemporary, ground-level capitalism.

Emily is a good film up until it abandons its look at life at the ragged edge of the job market in favour of a crime story. John Patton Ford, the writer and director, apparently didn't trust the audience to be engaged by a film about the challenges of the gig economy and decided to add sizzle with a wonky plot about petty gangsters. While Emily does have a few scenes about life on minimum wage that hit home, and a strong lead performance from Aubrey Plaza, the overall result is a bipolar film that wants to say important things, but self-sabotages with an attempt to provide generic suspense and action elements. 

American films that avoid examining working-class life through the lens of criminality are few and far between. Filter out the films that are comic, or biopics about individuals rising to the top, and you're left with only a handful of films that deal explicitly and realistically with working life: The Grapes of Wrath, Silkwood, Norma Rae, Matewan, Kudos if you can think of any others. European cinema has a better record in this regard, apparently confident that their audiences don't need the sizzle of crime in order to watch a drama about working stiffs. Another key difference between the two film cultures is the attitude to organized labour. In Temps, Julie's life is drastically complicated by strike action, but she doesn't complain about unions and their tactics, and a neighbour she gets a lift from one day is actually going into Paris to help support the strike action. In Hollywood, unions are usually portrayed as corrupt--see Blue Collar, Hoffa, and F.I.S.T. Norma Rae and Matewan are the rare films that take the opposite view. Both films share one weakness: their lead characters get "happy" endings for their stories. Julie's is more earned, but both seem more and more fantastical in this day and age.