Film of the week

Female Agents: 120 minutes. Rated: M. Director: Jean-Paul Salome. Starring: Sophie Marceau, Julie Depardieu, Marie Gillain, Maya Sansa, Deborah Francois, Moritz Bleibtreu

Female Agents movie poster A significant problem for Australian audiences of French war drama, Les Femmes de L'ombre is the loose translation of its title. Female Agents smacks of frivolity (is this a gender-switched spin on James Bond perhaps?) and belies the earnestness of the film's intent and the dark corners in which its characters dwell.

A more literal translation — The Women of the Shadow — would be better. This has connotations of spy-thriller espionage and intrigue, and may even be slightly cheesy. But it also captures something of the complexity of character and theme.

This is a film about undercover female soldiers sent into enemy territory during World War II to protect one of the Allied Forces' best-kept secrets. 'The shadow' refers not just to the covert nature of the operation, but also the ethical and emotional implications of putting life and personal integrity on the line in the name of doing your military duty.

The Allies have learned that Colonel Heindrich (Bleibtreu), head of the German counter-intelligence, has had an inkling of the planned D-Day landings at Normandy. So an all-female commando unit is assembled, with trained sniper Louise (Marceau) leading the charge to protect the secret and eliminate Heindrich.

While primarily an action film — and a fairly average one at that — Female Agents finds strength in the way it pays particular attention to the power of femininity when working undercover against a male-dominated military. It examines how the women, when invoking this particular power, need to subject themselves to being exploited in order that they might exploit their opponent.

For example, when the commando unit sets out to retrieve an injured British soldier from a German hospital, snatching him from the enemy before he can be tortured into divulging sensitive information, two of the 'agents' create a diversion by performing a striptease for a room full of hollering soldiers. It is unlikely a male soldier would ever be called upon to perform such a task, and less likely he'd be able to carry it off as successfully.

In this regard Female Agents bears comparison with the terrific 2006 Dutch film Black Book. That film's heroine, a Jewish resistance fighter working undercover against the Nazi occupation in the Netherlands, is used and abused awfully by the men in the film, yet by making herself thus ostensibly powerless, she in fact gains power.

Female Agents is not as tightly plotted nor as spirited as Black Book. But it is compelling in the way it examines the ways in which the degradations endured give the characters strategic power, at cost to personal power.

Not all the degradations are of a sexual nature. For Suzy (Gillain) the challenge is emotional, as she must exploit her previous, personal relationship with Heindrich in order to help his would-be assassins get near to him. While self-serving Jeanne (Depardieu) experiences a realignment of conscience as the ethical hardships of war lead her to consider others' welfare ahead of her own.

And not all characters survive the process intact. Gaelle (François), a young explosives expert, suffers physically and morally when captured and tortured for information about her comrades' whereabouts. Her innocence makes her a sympathetic character, which in turn renders her fall from grace all the more appalling and tragic.

A final point. Female Agents is a study of femininity in war. This makes it a fitting companion piece to another war film released this week, the US drama Stop-Loss.

Director Kimberley Peirce's politically charged but humane tale about a young soldier, Sergeant Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), and his return home to Texas following a tour of duty in Iraq, puts the surgeon's scalple to the relationship between masculinity and patriotism in the American south.

King has been deeply affected by his experiences at war and, having completed his required term, is looking forward to settling back in to his old life. When he is confronted with the prospect of being forced to return to combat under the US military's 'stop-loss' clause, the decorated sergeant goes AWOL. His rage-fuelled cross-country odyssey brings him to re-examine his sense of duty to his country, comrades and self.

These are two very different films, but each offers a distinctive take on the ways in which war impacts the human beings involved. After all it is individual humans, not political or military entities, who bear the greatest burden.

Female Agents UK website
Stop-Loss official website

Tim Kroenert Tim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and ASif. He is a contributor to the volume American Exorcist: Critical Essays on William Peter Blatty. Email Tim

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Les Femmes de L'ombre, Female Agents, Jean-Paul Salome, Sophie Marceau, Julie Depardieu


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