Cannes 2023 review: Rien à perdre (Delphine Deloget)

“Coupled with Virginie Efira’s utterly convincing performance, Rien à perdre comes out as one of the better entries in the Un Certain Regard subgenre of late, and a film that will likely play well with audiences.”

Every year the Un Certain Regard sidebar has a number of (often French) middle-of-the-road family dramas. They are never offensively bad, just well-made but somewhat bland melodramas of undistinctive visual style that are exclusively designed to elicit emotions. On first glance Delphine Deloget’s debut feature Rien à perdre (All to Play For) is of this ilk, but a closer look reveals that it wants to shine a light, even if it’s just from one side, on a social issue that is rarely talked about in cinema: the absolute power of child protective services when it comes to deciding whether a child should be with its parents or not. That setting alone puts Rien à perdre in a perfect spot to draw the aforementioned emotions and get the old tear ducts working, but Deloget also had the privilege to cast Virginie Efira, the rising star of French-speaking cinema and a perfect match for the role of a mother fighting to get her son back. With Efira’s presence and talent, Rien à perdre manages to rise above the standard of the Un Certain Regard melodrama thanks to a mesmerizing performance from its leading lady.

While Sylvie (Efira) is at work behind the bar of a club, her youngest son Sofiane (Alexis Tonetti) tries to make himself a late night deep-fried snack. That attempt goes horribly wrong, leading to severe burns and a trip to the hospital with his older, more responsible brother Jean-Jacques (Félix Lefebvre). A routine report of the incident to child protective services leads to a surprise visit by an inspector (India Hair) and the decision to place the tantrum-prone Sofiane into foster care. With her two brothers, the loose-headed Hervé (Arieh Worthalter) and the more serious Alain (Mathieu Demy), and a lawyer at her side, Sylvie prepares to fight the system and get her son back. But the love of a mother alone is not enough, and a frustratingly rigid bureaucracy and unhelpful self-help groups push Sylvie deeper into despair to the point of breaking.

What Deloget’s Rien à perdre mainly wants to point out is the rigidity of the system surrounding child protective services and how easy it is to fall into what to parents in these situations feels like a trap. Many of the stories at the self-help group Sylvie joins speak of years of separation from children, up to a decade or more. One would assume this is ample time for the legal system to assess the parents’ home situation to see if a child can be placed back into the care of its family, but the system is not set up that way and is afraid of the outlier cases where returning a child from foster care led to harm or death. Rien à perdre does lean in a little too much on the ‘evil system’ angle, making Hair’s Madame Henry almost comically awful, but a balanced view is not what the film is after. It weakens the case it tries to make though, relying too much on the family drama to do the heavy lifting in winning the audience over.

That audience should be won over almost instantly by Efira’s central performance. The Belgian actress is quickly racking up a string of ‘everywoman’ performances that fit her naturalistic acting style like a glove. Watching her interact with her on-screen children in the opening scenes of Rien à perdre might make you believe they actually are her children. The performance belies the melodramatic nature of the film, grounding the film more than its narrative should allow for; it worked wonders for Rebecca Zlotowski’s Other People’s Children and Alice Winocour’s Revoir Paris, and Efira’s presence has the same effect on Rien à perdre, easily raising the level of the film above what it would be with a lesser actress. Lefebvre as her insecure trumpet-playing son stands his ground, delivering a quiet but devastating performance as a young man whose own struggles with insecurity about his life path are superseded by the love for his mother and brother. This mother-son bond is the best-established relationship in the film and its core, whereas Sylvie’s connection with her brothers is more superficial and an artificial crutch to drive the plot.

A story like Rien à perdre‘s relies to some extent on what the audience brings into it. It has its opinion, but allows the viewer to have one too, and that’s a strong point in its favour. Deloget paints Sylvie as a flawed woman, stubborn and like her son prone to throwing a tantrum, even if the circumstances make this understandable. Given her home situation as a single mother, the question whether that is a good environment for a kid like Sofiane is not unreasonable, and Deloget, who clearly has an affection for the character, doesn’t try to get the notion out of your head. That makes Rien à perdre a fairly balanced film in the way it looks at its protagonist, even if the perception of the antagonist lacks that balance. Coupled with Virginie Efira’s utterly convincing performance, Rien à perdre comes out as one of the better entries in the Un Certain Regard subgenre of late, and a film that will likely play well with audiences.