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The morning after a wild night of dancing on roller skates and cavorting with not one but two hot men, Alex (Adèle Exarchopoulos) returns to her rented villa, curling up next to her best friend, Carole (Mélanie Laurent). Carole takes one look at Alex's face—all bruised on one side, with fresh cuts on her lip and eyebrow—and gasps, "What happened to you?" Alex replies, in a flat, "it's no big deal," voice, "I'll tell you later." They move on to another subject. Alex never does "tell her later." In what world is returning home post-hook-up covered not just in bruises but open wounds "no big deal"?
In "Wingwomen," directed by Laurent, it makes sense. It's also funny, and the film is filled with similar humor: unexpected, gently delivered, relationship-based. There are no broad or obvious "jokes." It's the way friends are often funny with each other, their shorthand, the spontaneous fits of giggles, the way you don't need to spell anything out. "Wingwomen," based on the graphic novel The Grand Odalisque by Jérôme Mulot, Florent Ruppert, and Bastien Vivès, is an action-packed heist film, but it leaves enormous room for the most important thing: Carole and Alex's friendship.
Buddy-comedy plus action-adventure is well-trod mostly male-dominated ground. There are some extremely popular exceptions ("Thelma and Louise" being the most obvious). "Wingwomen" doesn't unfold like a self-conscious self-important course correction where two "badass" women kick ass together. Carole and Alex are capable and, at times, heartless killers. But "Wingwomen" is subtle, in its way, even nuanced, showing a very real connection in the middle of an outrageously un-real circumstance.
Carole and Alex are professional thieves, working for a woman they creepily call "Godmother" (the great Isabelle Adjani), who rescued them from the streets and put them to work. Alex is a world-class sniper, and Carole is the sneaky thief on the front line. They are enmeshed in each others' lives, bickering about groceries and counseling each other on personal problems. (During the opening sequence, where they dodge aggressive drones before launching themselves off a cliff, Alex chatters about her disappointing love life and tendency to fall for the wrong guys.) But things are changing. Both women want to extricate themselves from the dangerous life. Godmother won't let them go so easily. She would kill them if they double-crossed her. Godmother assigns them one last big job, promising they can "retire" afterward, a promise neither Carole nor Alex trusts.
The last job is very complicated: they must steal architectural plans in one city and get weapons from an arms dealer in another city before heading to Corsica, where they must steal "The Grand Odalisque" (no, not the famous Ingres painting but the pop-art version, by Martial Raysse. Godmother contemptuously calls it "kitsch"). Carole and Alex hire Sam (Manon Bresch) straight off the racetrack as their getaway driver. Sam is not a thief or a criminal, so a grumpy Alex puts her through a training montage.
Antoine Roch's cinematography captures the stunning beauty of the Mediterranean coast, with Sam careening on her motorbike through hairpin turns along the Italian coast. Everyone they meet is eccentric in some way, and each has unexpected dimensions. Laurent gave a very interesting interview with Variety where she talked about the various ways she tried to avoid cliches, particularly in portraying friendship between women. The course correction in action films now is to make women "badasses," which, unfortunately, leaves out flaws or vulnerabilities. Laurent says, "We had this freedom to portray these characters smoking cigarettes and drinking wine when they’re not kicking butts. We wanted 'Wingwomen' to be rock ‘n’ roll. It’s kind of our French touch. In American action movies, you don’t see that. Filmmakers are censoring themselves to have the widest possible audience." She's not wrong.
Laurent is a gifted actress and, in the last decade or so, has shown herself as an accomplished and versatile filmmaker. "Breathe" was an emotional coming-of-age tale centered around an unnervingly intense teenage friendship, and her most recent was the melodramatic and satisfying "The Mad Women's Ball." Laurent can go small, and she is not afraid to go big. Laurent's eye for detail makes her films feel very alive. She highlights the gifts of her cast: the earthy, funny Exarchopoulos, the vulnerable yet strong Bresch, and, of course, Isabelle Adjani, who looks like she is having a blast playing this imperious, glamorous crime boss.
But notice how Laurent introduces Adjani's character: she is first seen sitting alone in an empty movie theatre, watching Henri Decoin's wonderful 1952 film "La Verite sur Bebe Donge," starring Danielle Darrieux (who died in 2017 at the age of 100) and Jean Gabin. The shot explicitly connects Adjani to those two giants of French cinema, a deliberate and touching tribute to Adjani's career. The shot doesn't move the plot along, but plot isn't everything. Relationships are. "Wingwomen" doesn't really stick the landing, but the journey is a lot of fun.
On Netflix now.
Mélanie Laurent as Carole
Adèle Exarchopoulos as Alex
Isabelle Adjani as Marraine
Manon Bresch as Sam
Philippe Katerine as Abner
Félix Moati as Clarence