Best of Doc 2024: Little Girl Blue (Mona Achache)

“This hybridization between documentary and fiction, past and present, reaches its climax in intense, devastating face-to-face encounters between the living and the dead.”

From the very beginning the threat of insanity, and the tragedies it can lead one to, looms over Little Girl Blue. Mona Achache, the film’s director and main character, shows herself gradually drowning in the overwhelming remembrance of her mother Carole, who committed suicide in 2016. In her office she stores memorabilia everywhere, filling boxes, covering the floor and walls, hanging them from the ceiling. In voice-over, away from this place of memory, her father begs her to stop – indeed, we are promptly told that fixating over one’s mother’s fate is some kind of curse in this family, as Mona’s mother and grandmother each did it in their time. To break the spell Mona takes a decision that at first seems an even deeper dive into madness (and produces on screen a vision that is truly astounding): to have Marion Cotillard come in and impersonate her mother. The sequence that follows is nothing less than a re-enactment in real life of the legendary scene from Vertigo in which Scottie forces Judy to look like Madeleine. One by one, Mona takes from a drawer clothes and objects that belonged to Carole, as well as props like a wig or contact lenses, to mimic her mother’s appearance, and we slowly see Cotillard become Carole; from that point on, the documentary is as much about Mona’s family secrets as it is about the work of an actress taking on a role.

Both parts of the film often blend together, like when we discover that Mona’s office is actually a movie set where Cotillard performs primarily for a single spectator: Mona herself, who watches and directs the actress as she trains her voice, rehearses her monologues, and plays scenes based on real interviews given by Carole. Along with excerpts from letters and diaries, these dialogues draw an eloquent picture of her life before Carole was a mother – when she suffered from the ambiguous influence of her own mother, as a child, a teenager and a young adult. Underneath the veneer of personal emancipation and elevation that reigned in the days right after the end of World War II and later in the seventies, and that shaped Carole’s public image as a renowned writer and editor of the Parisian intellectual society, in private the life of women was a series of sexual abuses of all sorts. We learn about sordid stories of rape, coercion into having an abortion, child enticement (of Carole at the hands of Jean Genet, whom Carole’s mother was close to and admired), even prostitution. Most of all, we realize how this was considered a mandatory part of life by the women themselves, resigned to endure this violence and passing it on to the ones coming after as “destiny, not tragedy,” as Carole once bluntly told her daughter.

Little Girl Blue gives us this phrase as it fast-forwards in time, to the interactions between Carole and Mona – and to how history dreadfully repeated itself once again when the latter was a victim of statutory rape and the former only half-heartedly defended her, biased by her own life experiences. At this point in the film, the setup designed by Mona Achache goes to another level: the director becomes an actor herself, as she is now a part of the episodes of her mother’s life and therefore re-enacts them with Cotillard. This hybridization between documentary and fiction, past and present – which shares similar roots with another recent hybrid, They Shot the Piano Player, even though the movies are quite different – reaches its climax in intense, devastating face-to-face encounters between the living and the dead. Between a submissive attitude that goes back a long way, and Mona’s generation which refuses this code of silence. A refusal that is the first small step towards seeing things change.