Madeleine Collins

Madeleine Collins (2021)

Madeleine Collins had its UK première at the Glasgow Film Festival 2022

Antoine Barraud’s Madeleine Collins, which he co-wrote with Héléna Kotz, begins in an upmarket department store, as a young woman (Mona Walravens), new to town, is looking for the right dress. It is a complicated choice, with elaborate criteria. The first dress that draws her eye is “really not [her] style” and as the sales assistant points out, “a very unusual cut”; the second, is a “stunning” fishnet item, but not classic enough to please the woman’s mother (who is paying); the third is “sublime”, but far too expensive. The woman selects two cheaper items to try on, and, changing her mind, asks if she can also try the fishnet dress that she had not dared consider earlier. What we are watching here is a woman navigating the relationship between her inner identity and her outward appearance, between what she wants and what others want from her – a knotted relationship that comes with pressures both financial and familial. 

This woman is not the main character of Madeleine Collins – in fact she dies rather suddenly and unexpectedly, off camera, at the end of the opening sequence. Rather the protagonist is Judith Fauvet (Virginie Efira) – although she goes by other names – a globe-trotting interpreter who divides herself between French and English, and who also leads a split life in other ways. For when she is not living with her unemployed partner Abdel (Quim Gutiérrez) and their young daughter Ninot (Loïse Benguerel) in Switzerland, she is with her conductor husband Melvil (Bruno Salomone) and their two sons, teenaged Joris (Thomas Gloria) and the younger Victor (Théo Deroo), in France. This secretive two-state existence has been built on a kind of deceit that has become habitual, even thrilling, for the deftly code-switching Judith, allowing her to get all the different things that she desires from life – but as the house of lies starts to reveal structural damage that can no longer be overlooked, Judith must decide who she really wants to be before the decision is made for her. 

When Judith asks Melvil if she should wear something more formal for his gala performance, he replies, “I forbid you to be too beautiful, wear something gray and dull”; and at the performance, Judith is told by her disapproving mother Patty (Jacqueline Bisset), “You have no dress sense. That dress flattens your butt. It’s not very flattering.” Which is to say that while Judith’s peculiar life – with its two separate households – may seem rather extreme, she is really under the same pressures as that woman in the opening scene, having to to keep up appearances (and dress for the part) while juggling the conflict between all manner of personal and professional obligations to others, and even finding a little room for herself. 

Judith is a kind of double-agent operating between her two families, so that there are elements in Madeleine Collins that evoke a thriller. The connections between Judith and the other characters (including that female shopper from the beginning), and even the significance of the film’s title (a name with a clash of cultural signifiers), will all be only gradually revealed, positioning the viewer as a detective investigating a mystery of female identity. For the most part, however, Barraud’s film plays out as a domestic melodrama, with Judith torn between ultimately irreconcilable expectations from home(s), and breaking under the strain of constantly reinventing herself. Virginie Efira, last seen in Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta (2021), brings compelling continuity to a woman who is otherwise protean and fugitive – unable to settle on a dress which best suits her elusive self.

strap: Antoine Barraud’s melodrama shows a duplicitous woman vainly attempting to reconcile herself to others’ expectations

© Anton Bitel