Review by Jack Foley
FRENCH director Jean-Paul Salome says he wanted to pay tribute to the heroism and sacrifices made by female Resistance fighters during the Second World War. His film, Female Agents, is a shamelessly old fashioned action-adventure that does exactly that.
Inspired in part by the true story of Lise Vilameur (nee de Baissac), who was awarded the Croix de guerre and Légion d’honneur, and made an MBE for her exploits, the film follows the fortunes of five women as they carry out a Dirty Dozen-style suicide mission behind enemy lines in order to prevent the plans for the imminent D-Day offensive from falling into the wrong hands.
It’s spring 1944 and grieving Resistance sniper Louise Desfontaine (Sophie Marceau) is asked to recruit a team of five to rescue a British agent who has falling into German hands while scouting the Normany beaches.
With the help of her brother (Julien Boisselier), she recruits Suze (Marie Gillain), a showgirl who excels in the art of seduction; Gaelle (Deborah Francois), a chemist and explosives expert who has found religion; Maria (Maya Sansa), a Jewish Italian radio operator, and Jeanne (Julie Depardieu), a prostitute who has already killed in cold blood.
But their mission becomes more dangerous after it becomes apparent that German colonel Heindrich (Moritz Bleibtreu) has got wind of the D-Day proposals and must be assassinated to prevent word spreading further up the German command.
Although clichéd at times, Salome’s film offers a genuinely rousing piece of escapism that unfolds at a breathless pace. It can – and has – been criticised for employing one too many glamorous cast members and operating in overly familiar territory, prompting comparisons with countless war-time espionage thrillers up to and including Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, but it gets away with it because it’s consistently exciting and keeps you guessing until the end.
And while the lipstick and stockings do threaten to undermine the gritty authenticity of the piece in places, Salome is careful to offset them with some of the harsher realities of war, and some of his torture scenes will leave viewers wincing.
Of the agents, Sophie Marceau is superb as the no-nonsense leader who also has to cope with the realisation she is pregnant, while Marie Gillain and Julie Depardieu stand out as two of the team. Moritz Bleibtreu is also outstanding as the ruthless German colonel who benefits from not playing to stereotype (his ambitious go-getter is a little more complex than that).
Come the big moments, Salome also ensures that the film doesn’t lose the courage of its convictions or become too lost in the sense of patriotism. Rather, its heroines are prone to doubt and mistakes, which makes the success or failure of the mission less obvious.
The overall result is a cracking war-time yarn that genuinely impresses and which could lead some viewers to research more of the real-life acts of heroism that inspired it in the first place. There are some remarkable stories awaiting discovery.
In French, with subtitles
Running time: 2hrs
UK DVD Release: October 6, 2008
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