Venice 2018 review: Pearl (Elsa Amiel)

On the one hand, the official line-up of the 75th Venice Mostra is as full of stars and glorious names as one can dream of. But on the other, it is dramatically tenuous regarding the presence of women directors: there are merely a few here and there, with only Jennifer Kent (The Nightingale) in competition for the Golden Lion. The independent section Giornate degli Autori (formerly Venice Days) made a stand by going in the opposite direction, with complete equality between women and men in its selection of twelve feature films. Among these Pearl is on the front line when it comes to the affirmation of women, as the subject is at the core of its narrative.

Elsa Amiel (a long-time first assistant director, lately on Camille Rewinds by Noémie Lvovsky, and House of Tolerance and Saint Laurent by Bertrand Bonello) develops the story of her first feature film as a director and writer around the character of Lea Pearl (Julia Föry), a bodybuilder fully focused on her sole objective, which is to win the international championship she has been training so many years for. On the morning of the event her ex-lover shows up out of nowhere and asks her to take care of Joseph (the son they had together but that he raised alone) for the rest of the day. This conflict serves as a basis for an exploration of the status and struggles of women through the extrapolation provided by the practice of bodybuilding.

Lea, who once upon a time was named Julia, now answers only when called by her new name because it is much more than a stage name; it is a piece of a whole new identity she has willfully and strongly composed for herself. She is in absolute control of her life, and of her body which she sculpts following nothing else than her own aspirations – in full application of the motto “my body, my rules”. Lea expressed it years ago by deciding not to devote her life to raising a child; her achievement would not come from someone else, through motherhood, but from herself only. When pressed by people who refuse to understand it, such as her ex-lover, she expresses her resolution in clear words: “Now I am this body”, “For once, consider what I want for myself”.

What Lea wants is the opposite of being defined by the prejudices of others, so often limiting women to motherhood or certain canons of feminine beauty. She demands to be the sole decision-maker as to what she looks like and who she is as a woman. An identity that does not even require her to keep having her period, as Amiel reveals to us, when we learn that the medical treatment Lea takes for her bodybuilding blocks her menstruation from happening. And when Lea is on several occasions shown unable to leave Joseph high and dry, this does not happen because of the return of a so-called lost and innate maternal instinct. It is rather the result of Lea’s humane personality, which makes it impossible for her to do such a heartless thing to anyone, whether connected to her by blood or not at all.

Even though the characters around Lea have more tenuous story arcs, Amiel nevertheless succeeds in making a strong impression through her great talent as an actor’s director – especially with the young Vidal Arzoni, whose interpretation of Joseph is as real as a six-year-old boy can be. Amiel is a great director in all respects, as evidenced by the final scene of Pearl. It is the first scene where her staging is truly liberated, thus embracing the condition of her heroine, who felt constrained all throughout the movie. It is only when Lea is finally given the opportunity to be her true self, and to affirm it to the eyes of the world by being on stage, in control, that the style of the film bursts with her in a spectacular and thrilling combination of lighting, editing, music – and the woman at the center of it all.