Wednesday, March 6, 2019

An Eccentric Love Story: La drôlesse (English title: The Hussy) (1979)

La drôlesse was well-received by critics on its release.  The film went on to compete for the Palme d'Or at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival.  It lost to dual winners Apocalypse Now and The Tin Drum, but film's director Jacques Doillon received the festival's Young Cinema Award.  The film is largely forgotten today.

IMDb provides a concise plot summary: "Misfit François kidnaps young Mado and takes her to live with him in the attic of his parents' home.  A strange relationship evolves till the police comes upon them."

A film about a weird 20-year old guy who locks up an 11-year-old girl in an attic.  How does that not get creepy?  François (Claude Hébert) is a lonely, withdrawn young man who has been ignored by his insensitive mother and stepfather.  He never gives the audience clear insight into his motives or objectives, but he is presumably looking for friend to acquire the affection and attention that he lacks at home.  Mado (Madeleine Desdevises), who is neglected by her own family, can understand the loneliness that François feels.  She develops a bond with her kidnapper and treats him with the kindness that she realizes he needs.  Cannes Film Festival noted in its literature, "[T]he boy is not a good jailer and the prisoner quickly learns how to escape from the attic where he has shut her up. . . but she remains nevertheless." 

It is a sweet and tender relationship, even though a creepiness lingers stubbornly at the fringes of their story.  British filmmaker Eli Hayes has called the film "strange and disturbing (but surprisingly charming)."  At one point, Mado tells François that she wants him to make her pregnant, but he explains to her that this wouldn't be a good idea and she accepts that.  The issue passes as quickly as it arose.  The relationship remains platonic. 

Their interactions are filled with the clumsy and innocent fumblings of first love.

The word "drôlesse" refers to a young girl who, due to her lack of experience, is silly, awkward and naive.  Mado was referred to as "odd" and "gawky" in reviews, which supports this assessment of her.  But the Hussy title that was attached to film for English-language markets suggests a story of lust rather the story of love, companionship and isolation that the film actually provides.


The film is based on a true story, but no information is available on the real-life Mado and François.  Did they form a deep emotional bond?  Did their relationship remain platonic?

Desdevises' performance as Mado dominates the film.  She is so self-assured in front of the camera that it is astonishing that she had no previous acting experience.  She received other offers after this film, but she only made one more film before she quit acting to focus on school.  Tragically, she died of leukemia at the age of 15.

Doillon later wrote and directed Ponette (1996), a heartbreaking drama that involves a four-year-old girl coping with the death of her mother.

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