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Wellspring presents
Girls Can't Swim (2000)

"We never laughed before. Now they laugh like nothing ever happened."
- Lise (Karen Alyx)

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: October 22, 2002

Stars: Isild Le Besco, Karen Alyx
Other Stars: Pascal Elso, Marie Rivière, Pascale Bussières
Director: Anne-Sophie Birot

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (some sexual content, nudity, adult themes)
Run Time: 01h:37m:25s
Release Date: September 24, 2002
UPC: 720917533421
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B- C+C+B- C

DVD Review

Everybody needs a best friend. And the bonds we make in adolescence can be stronger than most, can retain a mystical power both at the time and, later in life, upon reflection. It's that territory this movie explores, the connection between two teenage girls that's so important to them that it's beyond words. There's something poignant and potent in this, but in and of itself it's not enough to sustain a feature-length motion picture, and this is where, if you'll excuse the metaphor, Girls Can't Swim treads in dangerous water.

Isild Le Besco plays Gwen, the daughter of a Brittany fisherman; theirs is a summer tourist destination, though they live there year round, and Gwen's happiest times are summer days spent with Lise, who arrives with her family, like clockwork, every June. We meet Gwen on the last day of school, nearly panting for Lise's arrival—her boyfriend Fredo is a distant second, though she's happy to steal some hours with him on her father's boat, and not to work on their fishing. Lise has become a nearly mystical, shamanistic figure for Gwen, part Christ, part Godot, and of course Gwen is heartbroken when the phone call comes: change in plans, and Lise's summer vacation is off.

The second portion of the film shows us Lise, played by Karen Alyx, and the reason the vacation plans get canceled: her father, whom she hardly knows, has been killed in an automobile accident in England, and Lise mourns with her mother and two sisters. Lise doesn't tell Gwen the bad news, which makes me wonder about their bond: what's a best friend for, after all, if not to help you through your worst sorrows? Lise has had enough of her mother's mournful home (Mom's grief strategy: "I don't want to hear about Dad in this house") and boards a bus for Brittany, the answer to Gwen's prayers.

And so finally, the two friends are together—but for the audience, it's a terrible disappointment, because it's unclear just what their bond is, and why they cling so tenaciously to one another. It's nice that the movie doesn't overexplain things, but close to nothing happens, and it soon grows tiresome. It doesn't seem like a great choice to keep them apart for so long, but once the film goes down that path, it feels compromised and arbitrary to bring them together—it's hard to imagine what could live up to the hype presented to us during the first hour, but what's here sure doesn't do it. The narrative is rather bottom heavy, as Gwen's father's boat breaks down; he doesn't have the money to repair it, and with his daughter's friend in the house, he takes on a Humbert Humbert aspect, and there are more than a few echoes of American Beauty. But it feels like housekeeping more than storytelling—you can almost hear the filmmakers thinking, How are we going to wrap this up?

The other principal problem is that Le Besco, who is asked to carry much of the movie, simply isn't up to the task. Alyx fares better, and they're both game, but we don't come to share their pleasures or ache in their sorrows, as we might and as we should, in this kind of story. The principal tension between them that you might expect to be exploited—working-class fisherman's daughter versus the bourgeois summer girl—doesn't even rate a mention. That wasn't necessarily the way to go, but the human insight on display would make a fine little short story, and there simply isn't enough here to sustain our attention for an hour and a half.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: C+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.66:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Many, many scratches appear on the print, during the exterior shots especially. It's a shame, because the scenery in Brittany is so lovely, and you may wonder if the shoot was done on the cheap, or just sloppily. Color palette is balanced pretty well, if a little too bright, and blacks are consistent.

Image Transfer Grade: C+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Frenchyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: It's a dialogue-driven movie, and the 5.1 track adds some nice atmospheric touches, but you won't miss out on much if you stay with the 2.0 track, which is clean. Some of the seaside shots presented particular audio problems, and they weren't solved with much elegance—you can hear either the wind whip against the microphone, or that the actors looped much of their dialogue in later, or both.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
2 Original Trailer(s)
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Brief bios are provided for Anne-Sophie Birot, who wrote and directed, along with five of her leading actors. One trailer is for the theatrical release, the other for the home video release; and weblinks are to the film's official site, to Wellspring, the American DVD distributor, and to a fan site for Isold Le Besco. Subtitles are generally fine, though there's the occasional translation problem—e.g., "I get by alone fine without you."

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

There are some nice things in this movie, but the pleasures are small ones, and are exhausted pretty rapidly. It's more of a quick dip than a swim.


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