Considering the number of filmmakers claiming their adoration for the cinema of Claire Denis, and especially for her 1999 masterpiece Beau Travail, it is surprising to see so few films take inspiration from the French director’s work.
With its video game aesthetic and heavy artillery imagery — and the relatively little attention it received from critics at the Toronto International Film Festival — Jessica Forever didn’t look to be one of the rare exceptions. And yet.
Like Beau Travail, this feature debut from French filmmaking duo Caroline Poggi and Jonathan Vinel centres on a group of young, muscular men often obliged to fight and use weapons, and the duo are similarly much more interested in the boys’ downtime than in the violent shootouts and battles they sometimes engage in.
Unlike Denis’ film, however, Jessica Forever does not exactly take place in our world, and the boys are not in the army. Although the film’s setting looks like any small town in French suburbia, there is an odd, surreal feeling to it: deserted and silent, it distinctly looks and sounds like a place in an open world video game. This aesthetic is much more than a gimmick, however: Poggi and Vinel harness the specific emotional resonance of video game reality. Those digital worlds might be fake, but their effect is far from deadening: on the contrary, the effort and purpose that went into their creation can trigger an intense, sometimes overwhelming feeling of directness. It is a stripped-down yet more concentrated, heightened reality, in which every element has patiently, cautiously, and consciously been placed there by game creators.
This earnestness in the film’s visual style goes hand in hand with the search for purity and sincerity that is at the core of the story. The eponymous Jessica is a woman who has made it her life’s mission to protect and defend the ‘orphans’, the young men who have turned to violence after being rejected by society at large. All of them have a history of violence, a habit of self-hatred and aggressive reactions, but Jessica keeps their demons at bay. Played by Aomi Muyock (seen in Gaspar Noé’s Love), she looks like a heroine out of a fantasy video game, and like such characters, she speaks earnestly with a soothing voice. Through her unconditional love for them, she gives the boys permission to forgive themselves for their past deeds, and move on without anger or fear. Her influence on them shows in the deeply sincere and affectionate way they talk to each other, without sarcasm or irony, and always with the other’s feelings in mind. The contrast between their menacingly macho appearance (due to their muscles and military gear) and their tenderness is endlessly endearing, and the film leans into this for our greatest delight. One sequence sees the boys receive Christmas presents from Jessica with almost childish enthusiasm: one of them gets a gigantic amount of snack bars; the other receives exercise equipment; another one finds a motorcycle under his bed covers.
But this rare equilibrium is fragile, and the peace soon destabilised: the boys might be physically strong, but they are also extremely sensitive, and the smallest thing can throw them over the edge. Their clandestine venture into the outside, ‘real’ world inevitably leads to heartache, violence and pain. The film’s careful, unostentatious compositions, and the extreme sharpness of the image, underline the atmosphere of candour and trust created by Jessica; everything that stands out from it — a callous comment or an aggressive interaction — cuts like a knife and crushes the spirit. Like Jessica herself, Poggi and Vinel’s film has a heart of gold.
Jessica Forever was seen and reviewed at TIFF 2018.