From small to big screens, everybody loves a story about a redeemed criminal. Shows like “The Wire” and films like “The Departed” ask viewers to root for misanthropic men whose criminal careers are either on the downswing or in the not-too-distant past. In “Jessica Forever,” a French TIFF premiere from directors Caroline Poggi and Jonathan Vinel, a band of lost boys vie for audience sympathy. As they try to survive a misandrist dystopia with the guidance of their leader, Jessica (Aomi Muyock), the boys struggle to find love, inner peace, and the perfect metal ballad. Unfortunately, the characters’ journeys in this film are about as well-constructed as its sci-fi trappings – and you could knock either over with an exasperated sigh.
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As “Jessica Forever” opens, her band of ten men descends on Kevin (Eddy Suiveng), a waifish burglar, and brings him into their fold. Kevin and Julien (Lukas Ionesco) have an especially close bond fueled by their unexpected sensitivity and matching River Phoenix-esque ‘90s haircuts. The viewer spends a good bit of time with Kevin, acclimating to the group and their mission – surviving, saving orphans who are hunted by deadly, government-employed drones – along with him. He’s likable enough, bloodlust aside, and his blend of naïveté and hardness make him an excellent passage into the film’s complex world.
And then, Kevin dies.
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When a sudden drone attack takes Kevin out, Jessica sends orphans Michael (Sebastian Urzendowsky) and Lucas (Augustin Raguenet) out to find a new home. They end up both in a luxurious island home and as the erstwhile protagonists of the film. This hero switcheroo comes 30 minutes in, even though we know nothing about either guy – and even though they are both undeniably creepy.
“We’re orphans!” Lucas cries when they arrive at the house. “Our birthright is to take everything, all that has been denied us! We’ll invade your homes and slit your throats in your sleep!”
It’s a chilling moment, especially given the recent rise of incels, that underlines this film’s fatal flaw: Despite its testosterone-loaded cast, “Jessica Forever” does nothing whatsoever to comment on or critique masculinity. In fact, the film is so overwhelmingly lax with its male characters that its titular female character ceases to matter or exist. World-building would have helped enormously with this issue. Why are all of these orphans male? Why does Jessica make them all nap together? Most importantly, who is Jessica, and why has she decided to take on the hormonal bullshit of ten young men at once?
That latter question has even scarier implications than the men’s actions, as Jessica – a no-dimensional beauty who loves wayward boys and useless armor – begins to resemble more of a cult leader than a guardian angel. She encourages the men’s brutishness, supplying all their homes with workout equipment and more ammunition than a Texas Wal-Mart. She houses them and dictates when and where they sleep, fight, and go. “I don’t regret a thing,” Jessica asserts in voice-over as the movie closes. By that point, she’s become responsible for two murders and a suicide.
Perhaps this wouldn’t be so frustrating if Jessica acted like a real person, but instead, she wafts through scenes, staring glassily at her equally placid boys and occasionally delivering one of her six-ish spoken lines. Instead of a human woman, writer-directors Poggi and Vinel have penned a titular character that could easily be replaced by a fetching bedsheet.
The film’s two other women, Camille (Maya Coline) and Andrea (Angelina Woreth) are likewise vapid. A love interest to the insanely unsettling Michael, Camille’s main preoccupations include admiring Michael’s muscles and ignoring his assertions that he has committed every atrocity imaginable. (This would ostensibly include rape. Nevertheless, the two have sex.) Andrea, Lucas’ dead sister, haunts him for a bit before it is revealed that Lucas murdered her. Naturally, her ghost doesn’t really mind and forgives him. Why did Lucas murder his sister? Why doesn’t she care? Why does Camille similarly excuse Michael’s violence?
I’m sorry to say that “Jessica Forever” is not here to provide an answer. To anything. Rather than explain even the most basic elements of its plot (Why is the government hunting orphans???) “Jessica Forever” opts for magic-hour lighting and contemplative shots, hoping that Marine Atlan’s Petra Collins-hip cinematography will somehow detract from the film’s stunning lack of coherence. It doesn’t.
Sure, “Jessica Forever” has a few delightfully experimental moments – birthday cake letters and self-immolation make for some stunning visuals – but it quickly dovetails into nonsense. With characters as substantial as sand and no real plot to speak of, the film’s stylish quirks quickly turn from intriguing to pretentious. There are movies, like “I Think We’re Alone Now” and “Annihilation,” that use sci-fi strangeness to enhance their dramatic potential and further captivate the audience. “Jessica Forever,” on the other hand, is just here to waste your time. [D]
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