July 19, 2012
Female Agents – France, 2008
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A soldier is called in after a mission that did not go as planned and asked to accept a dangerous assignment that has global implications. The soldier at first remarks how impossible the mission seems before acquiescing to it. Next, the soldier must assemble a team, and so for a short time, we see the soldier meet with various individuals, each with their own special skill or expertise. After moments of indecision and occasional loud protests, each one eventually signs on and soon they find themselves being dropped into enemy territory under the cover of night. The formula I’m describing requires the newly formed team to have trouble functioning as a cohesive unit in the beginning and almost splitting up before finally coming together for the greater good and accomplishing great things.
In fact, nothing in the description I’ve just laid out is original. You can find shades of it in most action films and a few adaptations of comic books, including 2012’s monster hit The Avengers. Therefore, if you’re like me, the first twenty minutes or so of Jean-Paul Salome’s poorly titled 2008 film, Female Agents, will give you a severe case of déjà vu, and not in one of those fascinating ways that we see occasionally in science fiction films. However, if you can get past these parts of the film, you’ll witness something quite special.
Female Agents tells the story of Louise Desfontaines (Sophie Marceau), a brave woman who takes on a mission that would have been a challenge for even the most experienced of field agents. That her team is made up of three ladies with virtually no experience in battle is equally stunning. Their assignment is to drop into occupied France and rescue a British spy who is posing as a geologist. He has been collecting data that is essential to the success of the D-Day invasion in Normandy, and if he falls into enemy hands, it is possible that the Germans will discover the Allied forces plans for the D-Day assault that began on June 6, 1944. The geologist’s extraction is a success, of course. However, there’s one rather major hitch. It seems a German officer named Karl Heindrich is on to the Allied plans, and therefore, Louise and her team must find a way to take him out.
A film that takes on this plot is at a disadvantage right away, for the audience knows that the operation has to have been a success – unless of course, the film happens to have been the brainchild of Quentin Tarantino. What a film like Female Agents must do therefore is to tell a story that the audience doesn’t know, and it must make viewers care about the characters they see on the screen. This was the task that 13 Days, JFK, and Valkyrie took on and accomplished so skillfully. I’m happy to report that we can add Female Agents to that list.
Female Agents succeeds because it makes viewers care about the individuals involved in the operations. We feel for sweet, naïve Gaelle Lemenech (touchingly played by Deborah Francois), who realistically should never have been sent into the field in the first place. We grow to deeply respect Jeanne Faussier (Julie Depardieu) as she shows more courage and determination that some might expect when they first see her. Suzy Desprez (Marie Gillain), despite a series of poor decisions that could easily have seen her spend a great deal of time behind bars, wins us over simply by reminding us that sometimes love makes people do incredibly unwise things. In her case, it caused her to fall in love with and almost marry a Nazi. As for the leader of this group, Louise, she is a bit of tough nut to crack, as are most leads in action films, yet as the film progresses, we learn things about her that make us root for her to accomplish her mission and find a measure of comfort and happiness in life. Rounding out the team are Maria Luzzato (Maya Sansa), a woman already undercover as a nurse, and Pierre Desfontaines (Julien Boisselier), Louise’s brother. He is another character that audience members will have both great sympathy and great respect for by the end of the film.
I cannot vouch for just how much of what occurs in Female Agents is factual. The film is said to be based on the exploits of a highly respected SOE agent named Lise de Baissac, but neither Wikipedia nor another site I looked at directly mention the events that are depicted in the film. I imagine there has been a fair amount of embellished and creative license taken, as characters seems to always be in the right place at the right time. In one scene, there’s a daring rescue attempt that I found puzzling, for it didn’t seem logical that the rescuers would know just where to make it look like they were having car trouble. However, none of this matters in the long run. What matters is that Female Agents works as both a spy film and a drama. It has characters that fascinate and move us, and it is filled with the kind of suspense and drama that draws viewers in and doesn’t let go until the credits have stopped rolling. In other words, it’s a film that deserves a much wider audience. (on DVD in Region 3)
3 and a half stars
*Female Agents is in French, German, and English with English subtitles.
*Female Agents was screened at the Seattle International Film Festival in 2008. It does not appear to have been released in theatres or to be available on DVD in the United States.