‘This Life of Mine’ Review: Sophie Fillières’ Posthumous Directors’ Fortnight Opener Is as Personal as Cinema Gets SuperNayr

Few filmmakers working in comedy have ever been quite as subtle, quite as attuned to quiet cadences as Sophie Fillières. Little known in the U.S. but revered in her native France as a true heir to the French New Wave tradition of trying to look at life in a wholly original way, Fillières made her name in films such as “Oublie-moi” and “If You Don’t, I Will” that earned recognition from the festivals in Thessaloniki and Sarasota, respectively.

This year, she opens Directors’ Fortnight with “This Life of Mine.” Tragically, it’s her final film. Fillières died at 58 on July 31, 2023, not long after she wrapped production on the feature. Battling a long illness that got progressively worse during the shoot, she entered a hospital the day the cameras stopped rolling. She never left.

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The film she’s left behind, though, is as personal a legacy as one could imagine; if, sadly, an incomplete one. If “This Life of Mine” feels imbued with Fillières in every frame — lead actress Agnès Jaoui is such a stand-in for her that she even wore Fillières’ clothes and jewelry in the film — it feels less like Fillières’ film in its editing, which was supervised by the director’s children after her death. Fillières was a lifelong devotee of poetry, and though she’d probably be touched by her children’s effort, she’d recognize herself that the words are there, but the meter is off.

Jaoui plays Barberie Bichette, known to her friends as Barbie. She’s 55 and at a crossroads. Her children are grown, she’s separated from her unseen husband, and her job is far from enriching (she leaves her colleagues in a huff after hastily writing a poem on an easel as her parting note). “This Life of Mine” opens on her staring at her computer screen trying to write her memoir and fussing instead over which font to use — while a pair of eyeglasses with one side broken off hangs on her nose. What unfolds is the slowest-motion midlife crisis imaginable, as an accumulation of minor annoyances snowball to ultimately send her to a sanitarium and then on a cockeyed journey across the Channel to England and Scotland.

There’s understatement, and then there’s what Fillières goes for, which, frankly, has struggled to break through American sensibilities during the course of her career. Barbie’s reactions go beyond deadpan: When she overhears her daughter insulting her to a friend by saying of her mother, “Who would ever want to fuck her?,” she barely reacts. The thing that does seem to get under her skin, however, is a guy about her age or a little younger named Bertrand who keeps claiming he knew her decades ago — and she can’t remember him at all. That’s the thing that finally puts her in the sanitarium. That echo from the past.

“This Life of Mine” certainly captures that liminal state between our internal and external lives, the sheer amount of time we spend existing in our own heads, going over the same details again and again, lost in thought until the world beyond us can nearly fade. It also captures that much of lived experience is boring, full of waiting and awkwardness and unfulfillment. Barbie’s attempt at joking with a younger man coming out of a public toilet about whether he flushed or not backfires spectacularly. She spends her time in the sanitarium taking apart a light fixture. This is a cinema of emptiness. While so many movies emphasize over and over again how bombarded we are with our phones and work and relationships in an ever faster-paced 21st century, “This Life of Mine” shows how, for all of that, not much may happen of real consequence.

Instead, the task before us is to find meaning where you can. For Barbie, that means “buying” a one-meter plot of land in the Scottish highlands where anyone can plant their flag and be the “lord or lady.” For us as viewers, it’s in seeing a film about a woman at a certain endpoint in her life that feels like it echoes with its maker’s own experience. This a film about endings … and what’s next. It couldn’t be more resonant as a filmmaker’s cinematic last will and testament.

But it’s the form of “This Life of Mine” that is lacking, if not the content. The end result feels like an assembly cut more than a final edit, because we’ll never know if it’s the way that Fillières would have wanted it edited. There’s a particular feeling of one thing happening and then another and another without a particular flow. In a way, that’s like life. But for a cinematic poet like Fillières — and especially with her choice to avoid a score and have her camera be as unnoticeable as possible, the edit really then is essential — turning mere observation into verse means finding even more than just the stuff of life. Or death.

Grade: B-

“This Life of Mine” premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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