Toronto 2023 review: La Vénus d’argent (Héléna Klotz)

“Those who are able to get on its wavelength will be rewarded with a fully immersive experience and one of the best debut performances in recent memory.”

A decade after her last film L’âge atomique premiered in Berlin’s Panorama sidebar, Héléna Klotz returns with her slick and confident second feature La Vénus d’argent (Spirit of Ecstasy). Taking a refreshingly judgment-free look at the lengths that Jeanne (Claire Pommet), a young nonbinary person, takes to succeed in the world of investment trading in order to escape their dead-end life on a military base, Klotz presents a look at this elite world that is at once alluring and subtly scathing. For Jeanne, they are attracted to this constantly-shifting world of high finance less for the money and life of luxury that it provides than the opportunity to free themselves from the stifling role as caretaker for their much younger siblings while their father (Grégoire Colin) works as a lieutenant in the French Army and is often absent physically, emotionally, and financially. Add to this the complicated feelings bubbling up from the return of first love Augustin (Niels Schneider), and it’s no wonder that Jeanne latches on to charismatic and shark-like trader Farès (Sofiane Zermani) for a job that quickly proves too good to be true.

A major asset in the film’s favour is how Klotz plays with gender stereotypes in unexpected ways in order to give weight to Jeanne’s situation. This is one of the rare films focused on a nonbinary protagonist that doesn’t centre around a fraught coming-out story or explain the concept to its audience like they are children. Jeanne’s identity is casually introduced in the opening minutes of the film and accepted by those around them without issue. In the one moment where they appear to be met with a hostile reaction – Farès asking if their identity is “some woke crap” – Jeanne turns it around with an explanation – “I’m neutral like a number. Does anyone ever ask if seven is masculine or feminine?” – in a way that is able to both gain their boss’s respect and embrace being nonbinary as a totally normal thing. Jeanne’s physical appearance for most of the film – a bluish green suit, a severe bob, earrings, and light pink lipstick – functions as both a reflection of their gender identity and a commentary on how young women/female-presenting people breaking into traditionally male industries are pressured into assuming an appearance that’s attractive but not too feminine in order to be taken seriously. When Jeanne makes a radical change to their look in the final scene, one gets the sense that they are now able to pursue their career ambitions in total comfort, and that it will be up to others to accept them for who they are.

Physical spaces are also a key aspect used by Klotz to immerse us in Jeanne’s world. The film primarily takes place at the rundown military base where Jeanne lives and the offices, hotels, and boutiques frequented by the players of high-stakes insider trading. Klotz uses these spaces – their physical exteriors, the people and objects contained within them, and what they represent on a class/societal level – to enhance Jeanne’s desperation to access a higher echelon of society. By framing these symbols of luxury in a way that is both starkly soulless and alluring with their coldness, Klotz suggests that Jeanne’s quest isn’t entirely free of the desire to enjoy luxury and wealth, a privilege that most people would happily accept if given the opportunity.  While the military base, more rundown and severe, contains Jeanne’s entire personal history, it is clear from the moment they walk through the gates that they feel suffocated there, and that even the soulless glass structure of an investment firm is more liberating. The film’s title refers to the silver statue found on the hood of a Rolls Royce, and that status symbol is the perfect metaphor for the shiny, beautiful, but empty world that Jeanne finds themself in, but one that they are able to take control of and excel in through sheer drive and intelligence.

This is a film whose success rests almost entirely on the shoulders of its central performance, and Klotz made a risky but very successful choice in casting first-time actress Claire Pommet, better known as French indie pop star Pomme. Pommet’s performance is rather subtle and emotionless on the surface, but this seeming lack of emotion is instead a shield Jeanne uses to protect themself, and Pommet is able to suggest the waves of feeling hiding within them with her facial and body language in a way that reveals Jeanne’s mix of self-confidence, desperation, class loathing, and gender restriction. Line readings that could be interpreted as flat instead contain small but necessary modulations by Pommet that demonstrate how Jeanne is always on high alert, never willing to let their guard down out of fear of being hurt or losing their chance at escape. Sofiane Zermani (aka French rapper Fianso) is an incredibly charismatic and scene-stealing presence as Farès – from the moment he takes Jeanne under his wing it is immediately clear why they latch on to him as their opportunity to break through in the world of trading. The viewer hangs on every word or piece of advice he gives to Jeanne, and the film does lose a slight spark when he exits in the final third. One of the pleasant surprises of the film is how the relationship between Jeanne and Augustin quickly goes from feuding exes to a strong and supportive friendship, and Niels Schneider’s performance is a charming portrait of a man evolving from a self-absorbed guy with a hazy understanding of consent and female pleasure to a friend willing to make sacrifices in order to help them pursue their dreams. Grégoire Colin is effective in his few scenes as Jeanne’s father, and Anna Mouglalis fleetingly appears as another financial figure who has a major impact on Jeanne, but her alluring aura leaves a mark. A key scene near the film’s end features a very welcome cameo from Mathieu Amalric; his one scene is proof yet again of how he is able to command the screen and bring the best out of his partner in just a couple of minutes of screen time – one could watch an entire film consisting of him and Pommet trading verbal barbs.

Behind the camera, many of the film’s technical elements work in harmony to give us a sensorial experience of Jeanne’s journey. Victor Seguin’s cinematography has a slightly grainy texture that envelopes the viewer into the story while also highlighting the colours, both natural and unnatural, of Jeanne’s environments that make them at once alluring and distancing. The film’s score, a collaboration between Ulysse Klotz and Claire Pommet, brings together a variety of elements – synths, vocal pieces, orchestral music mixed with hip hop – in order to give the viewer a more visceral way to access Jeanne’s inner emotional turmoil and relentless drive on the job.

While none of the plot developments in La Vénus d’argent are particularly surprising, Héléna Klotz has crafted a compelling character study that presents us with one of the most fascinating and confident protagonists this year. While the film’s more relaxed pace and relatively low stakes won’t appeal to everyone, those who are able to get on its wavelength will be rewarded with a fully immersive experience and one of the best debut performances in recent memory. This should hopefully serve as a calling card for director and star as their careers continue in the years to come.