‘Little Girl Blue’ Review: Marion Cotillard Plays a Troubled Mother in Powerful and Personal Doc/Psychodrama Hybrid

‘Little Girl Blue’ Review: Marion Cotillard Plays a Troubled Mother in Powerful and Personal Doc/Psychodrama Hybrid
May 2023

The French Oscar winner plays writer-director Mona Achache's own mother in this film exploring the complexities of mother-daughter love.

As tender, painful and intimate as an open caesarean scar, writer-director Mona Achache's drama-documentary Little Girl Blue examines the fraught relationships between three generations of women within the director's own family, starting with her literary grandmother Monique Lange, her mother Carole Achache and herself.

Although narrated by Achache, who "plays" herself throughout, the focus is above all on the troubled child of the midcentury Carole, who committed suicide in 2016 and left behind an enormous cache of letters, journals, publications, photographs and documents. Achieving a remarkable casting coup that will make all the difference for the film's commercial prospects while richly enhancing its emotional texture, Achache persuades French superstar Marion Cotillard (La Vie en rose, Inception) to play Carole. The result is a fascinating psychodrama -- with extra scoops of meta on top -- that showcases the talents of all the story's women, especially Cotillard and Achache. At the same time, it shines a light on some of the darkest parts of family life, especially the complexities of mother-daughter love.

Little Girl Blue

The Bottom Line A brutally honest family portrait.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings)
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Mona Achache, Marie Bunel, Marie-Christine Adam, Pierre Aussedat, Jacques Boudet, Didier Flamand
Director/screenwriter: Mona Achache
1 hour 35 minutes

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Little Girl Blue

In what is obviously a stage set dressed to look like an empty Parisian apartment, Mona Achache is met sifting through some of the many storage boxes her mother left behind. She starts pinning and taping photographs onto the walls, creating collages of material that over the course of the film start to evolve into 3D sculptures, hanging from the ceiling, building out from the walls like bas-reliefs. In another room, thousands of books line the shelves, linking the set to Lange's noteworthy career at the center of French literary culture in the 1940s-50s, as an editor at Gallimard and a novelist and screenwriter herself, who wrote fiction, non-fiction and memoirs, particularly about her mother. Mona is able to draw on not just her own inherited family photographs, but also archive film that shows Lange living among famous existentialists and artists on Paris' Left Bank, from Albert Camus to Violette Leduc to Jean Genet, who plays a crucial role in Carole's story.

In a fairly shocking reveal, it turns out that Genet manipulated young Carole, when she was 12 or so, into sleeping with one of his own bisexual male lovers. Carole tried to talk about the situation with her mother, but Monique seemingly took Genet's side more than her child's. Achache quotes vicious things Genet said about Carole later on, and he does not come out of this story well, especially when another of his lovers, tight-rope walker Abdallah, commits suicide -- an event that further traumatized Carole, who had been close to him. Meanwhile, Monique's husband Juan Goytisolo was also gay and frequently slept with men throughout the marriage, all of which contributed, it seems, to Carole's confused ideas about love, relationships and family.

When May 1968 comes round, the by-this-point mature Carole is ready to luxuriate in the free-thinking and free-love spirit of the times. Mona shows innumerable nude pictures of her mother that Carole held onto, showing a woman unabashed about her sensuality even if there's a hint of sadness in her eyes. Later, in New York City, she became a sex worker, egged on by her partner at the time. It seems almost sudden when she gets pregnant with Mona and becomes a mother, devoted to her children and living what looks like, in the home movies seen here, an ordinary suburban life of birthday parties and bath times. When she tries to be taken seriously as a writer herself and experiences rejection from the literary establishment, despair is seeded which, it's suggested, contributed to her suicidal tendencies.

As the above suggests, it's a pretty packed set of stories nested within each other like matryoshka dolls, and Achache deliberately paces the editing, credited to Valerie Loiseleux, to reflect that whirling churn with images flickering in and out in an instant. Sometimes it's rostrum shots of the actual people from the family archive, and sometimes clips of stock footage -- for instance of a terrified little girl in black and white watching a performance at a circus to illustrate Carole's reaction to Abdallah's death.

In among it all walks Cotillard as Carole, dressed in Carole's actual clothes and the chunky black beads she wore every day toward the end of her life, her blue eyes covered with contacts to make them look brown like Carole's. The gradual process of building up this alternative Carole is shown from its start, when Cotillard comes in as herself, clad in swish designer clothes and an identity disguising baseball hat, to meet with Mona and take the part. At first she lipsyncs to some of the recordings of Carole being interviewed, an eerie device that recalls both Clio Barnard's documentary-drama The Arbor as well as Cotillard's impeccable lip-syncing to Edith Piaf in La Vie en rose. (Weirdly enough, Monique Lange wrote a biography of Piaf.) Over the course of the film, she gets deeper into the role, a full-on Method immersion that climaxes with a wrenching breakdown scene that seems to close some kind of gap between the two women.

Perhaps the best thing about the film is that it's more about questions than answers, and respects the mysteries around Carole especially. She was clearly a deeply damaged, deeply troubled woman whose ambitions were thwarted and left unrealized, apart from her ambition to be a good-enough mother. That gift is repaid in kind by her film-directing daughter, who forgives and tries to understand as best she can through her own ability to create art.