PRINT Summer 2018



Robin Campillo, BPM (Beats per Minute), 2017, 2K video, color, sound, 144 minutes. Sabrina (Sabrina Aliane) and Sophie (Adèle Haenel).

THOSE WHO SAW last year’s BPM (Beats per Minute), Robin Campillo’s pulsating drama about the Paris branch of ACT UP in the early 1990s, will never forget Adèle Haenel. She plays Sophie, the headstrong dyke member of the activist group. Fury burns in her gleaming green eyes. Her whistle at the ready, Sophie—tall, toned, physically solid—leads her comrades as they storm the headquarters of a drug company and shout, “Melton Pharm, assassin!” At one of the coalition’s weekly meetings, fake blood still staining her T-shirt, she vents her frustration with the improvised tactics of some of her confreres at an action carried out earlier that day. At another of those assemblies, she demonstrates how to jam a fax machine. She lustily smooches a cute brunette with a Caesar cut. She’s one of the best gyrators of her mostly gay-male cohort on the dance floor, transported by house-music beats.

Haenel rivets without ever upstaging any of her castmates in this electric ensemble production. BPM, which was voted the best foreign-language film of 2017 by both the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is likely her best-known movie in the US to date. But the actress, born in Paris in 1989 and now seventeen years into her career, is easily the most renowned in France among her BPM costars, several of whom made their screen debut in the film. Whether veteran or novice, though, most of BPM’s actors share one trait: They are out. Campillo, whose movie reflects his own biography—he joined ACT UP–Paris in 1992—has said of his troupe, “It seemed quite logical to me that in a film about a group that makes visibility one of its weapons, the majority of the actors should be gay themselves, and openly so.”

Katell Quillévéré, Suzanne, 2013, 2K video, color, sound, 94 minutes. Maria Merevski (Adèle Haenel).

The occasion for Haenel’s coming out couldn’t have been more high profile. At the ceremony for the Césars—France’s equivalent of the Academy Awards—in February 2014, Haenel, who had just won in the Best Supporting Actress category for her performance as the more stable of two sisters in Katell Quillévéré’s Suzanne (2013), concluded her brief acceptance speech with this: “And above all I wanted to thank, ehm . . . I wanted to thank Céline . . . because . . . because I love her, voilà.” Céline is writer-director Céline Sciamma, with whom Haenel had made Water Lilies (2007), and who, some years after that film’s release, became the actress’s romantic partner. The declaration is halting—and all the more touching for being so. However nervous or overcome with emotion Haenel appears while making her proclamation, her words evince the boldness that defines her work. We may have our share of openly queer actresses of Haenel’s generation on this side of the Atlantic, but it’s hard to imagine any of them first announcing their lavender affiliation from the stage of the Dolby Theatre on Oscar night.

We Americans may have our share of openly queer actresses, but it’s hard to imagine them announcing their lavender affiliation on Oscar night.

Haenel’s on-screen intensity recalls that of Isabelle Adjani in her greatest roles from the 1970s and ’80s. (The affinity between the two is underscored by the title of a 2015 monograph on the younger actress, Histoires de Adèle H., a play on the title of Adjani’s breakthrough film from 1975, François Truffaut’s L’histoire de Adèle H.) Haenel’s fervor is apparent from the first moment we see her in Christophe Ruggia’s Les Diables (The Devils, 2002), her debut, shot when she was twelve years old. She plays Chloé, a speechless, severely autistic girl, one of two siblings abandoned by their parents; she and her doting brother, Joseph (Vincent Rottiers), also of pubescent age, are continually sentenced to and breaking out of children’s homes. The Devils made almost inconceivable demands of its neophyte co-lead. Not only must Haenel embody an animal-like ferocity—Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker comes to mind—but she is often nude, her breast buds the focus of uncomfortable attention. She performs a primitive, amorphous sexuality; in the film’s second half, Chloé constantly touches, hugs, and licks Joseph, contact that leads to incestuous heavy petting.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, La fille inconnue (The Unknown Girl), 2016, 4K video, color, sound, 106 minutes. Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel).

It is unsettling, at times unbearable, to watch someone so young be so wholly committed to such a feral role. In one of the interviews compiled in Histoires de Adèle H., Sciamma says of Haenel’s performance in The Devils, “It’s as if she were possessed by something else, in a total and intimidating incarnation”—an assessment I can’t dispute. During the five-year gap between The Devils and Sciamma’s Water Lilies, Haenel did not act, focusing instead on her schooling—and maybe on recovering from that total and intimidating incarnation.

While much less outrageous than Ruggia’s movie, Water Lilies has its own provocations. The film, Sciamma’s first feature, revolves around the erupting desires of a group of fifteen-year-old girls—and specifically the strong libidinal power that Haenel’s Floriane, the vixenish captain of a synchronized-swimming team, has over tiny, awkward Marie (Pauline Acquart). In that Histoires Q&A, Sciamma notes that Haenel’s Water Lilies character was constructed as “a vamp, with the idea of the Hollywood bitch, but also of what she was behind the scenes: a vamp invents herself, she always plays at being a vamp, she has to be up to the level of her beauty, her status, her physical appearance.” Haenel firmly grasps the intricacies of the part, one that requires high levels of dissimulation: Floriane, desperate to maintain her baseless reputation for (heterosexual) promiscuity, cruelly leads Marie on, eventually asking her besotted friend to deflower her, in a byzantine scheme to deceive Floriane’s boyfriend. That scene, like much of Water Lilies, is cold and clinical; Haenel, reveling in the role of lycée femme fatale, provides the lone source of heat.

No matter how much her projects vary in tone, style, and subject matter, Haenel always adjusts the temperature. Languorous and narcotic, Bertrand Bonello’s House of Tolerance (2011)—which traces the final months at an upscale Parisian brothel at the dawn of the twentieth century—is, like BPM, a superb ensemble period piece enhanced by Haenel. As Léa, she stands out as the most unflappable of her sex-worker sistren, the one least concerned with sweet-talking the clientele. When one belle epoque john complains, “No one knows what you’re thinking,” she dismisses him with a curt, “I don’t think anything.” Playing someone for whom acquiescence is the foremost professional requirement, Haenel burrows deep to find Léa’s impervious sense of self. That extreme self-possession is also manifest in her knockout cameo in Bonello’s Nocturama (2016), about a massive attack on the French capital carried out by a cadre of millennial and Gen Z terrorists. In the aftermath of the bombings, Haenel, whose character is credited only as the “young woman on a bicycle,” dispassionately remarks, “It was bound to happen.”

In Thomas Cailley’s offbeat romantic comedy from 2014, Love at First Fight (the original title, Les combattants, is free of dopey puns), Haenel’s Madeleine, a grad-school dropout and doomsday prepper, is similarly convinced of our inevitable annihilation. There’s immense pleasure in watching this anhedonic, monomaniacal survivalist inure herself to the worst—an afternoon snack consists of a whole herring puréed into a blood-entrails-and-scales smoothie—and dedicate herself to developing warrior strength. Just as satisfying is witnessing the undeniable and yet confounding chemistry between Haenel and Kévin Azaïs, who plays Arnaud, a mild-mannered woodworker so intrigued by Madeleine that he enrolls in the same elite army training course that she had signed up for months ago. The two seem drawn together by both raw lust and a sibling-like camaraderie—ambiguous cathectic energy that gives the duo, and Haenel especially, greater erotic mystery.

Thomas Cailley, Les combattants (Love at First Fight), 2014, HD video, color, sound, 98 minutes. Madeleine Beaulieu (Adèle Haenel).

Even when Haenel portrays characters with no overt sexual appetite, as she does in the Dardenne brothers’ The Unknown Girl (2016), she radiates a corporeal vitality. Playing physician Jenny Davin, the latest of the Belgian filmmakers’ secular saints, she’s driven to uncover the circumstances surrounding the death of a young African woman whose body has been found near a construction site and whose demise Jenny feels partially responsible for. Like many of the Dardennes’ recent films, The Unknown Girl creaks with melodramatic plot devices to arrive at its moment of uplift. But Haenel, who appears in nearly every frame, always keeps us watching. She’s constantly on the move: When not auscultating patients at her clinic or making house calls at all hours, Jenny, as amateur PI, is running downleads. Her gait is resolute, typifying the doctor’s casual grace. Her eyes pierce with laser focus.

The Unknown Girl, like all the Haenel films mentioned here except The Devils and Suzanne, received theatrical distribution in the US, if only in a very limited release. The actress does not seem to care, though, whether the US will ever receive her. In an interview with Haenel for The Guardian tied to the UK release of the Dardennes’ movie, journalist Jonathan Romney notes that she, unlike many of her European coevals, has shown no interest in making a Hollywood film. “It’s not my thing,” she answers. “People say: ‘Oh, you’ve got to reach the maximum number of people . . .’ What’s the difference if I reach 3 million people, or 20 people, or three?” Her response—candid, refreshing, even a little daring—constitutes another kind of coming out.

Melissa Anderson is the film editor of 4Columns, where she is also a regular contributor.