Review: Stella in Love
- Sylvie Verheyde’s seventh feature is an atmospheric vintage revisiting of her teenage years, spent on the verge of an adulthood which seems to offer scant prospects
Fourteen years after grabbing international attention at the Venice Film Festival with her first autobiographical coming-of-age feature Stella [+see also:
film profile], French filmmaker Sylvie Verheyde is back with an unofficial sequel, Stella in Love [+see also:
interview: Sylvie Verheyde
film profile], which immerse audiences in the disco frenzy of the 1980s and is this time premiering at the Locarno Film Festival. A gentle and self-reflective exploration of the controversies of youth, it follows up on the protagonist’s personal development after her realisation in middle school that arts and culture might be cooler and more fulfilling than hanging out in her parents’ pub. A realisation which saves her from sinking into excesses and addictions, despite being a nightlife queen.
Stella, the now slightly grown-up protagonist from the first film, is already heading towards maturity in Stella in Love – overwhelmed by emotions, her head in the clouds, and lonely and lost in her yearnings. She reads a lot, making virtual friends with Balzac’s characters, but school is boring her to death: “It’s dumb learning by heart, like idiots. All we do is forget what we know. For starters, we forget we’re gonna die.” This brief existential monologue towards the end of the film already hints that she might not take her final exam, and also delivers subtle criticism of the education system, without attacking it outright. Spending her nights in the legendary Parisian club Les Bains Douches and daydreaming her way through school classes, Stella meets her obscure object of desire: an attractive and seductive black dancer, who does far more than rouse her sexuality, encouraging her intuitive urge to dance. Submerged in a world of music, she finds a way to express herself through body language. In this sense, communication in Stella in Love happens predominantly via movements, looks, and shared silences.
It’s refreshing to watch a coming-of-age film about existential wanderings and hormone-fuelled emotional turmoil, without having it all drowned out by alcohol/drug abuse or fast sex and blackouts. Although Stella’s home life with her unstable father (a notable performance by actor and singer Benjamin Biolay), who has left her insecure mother, is not cloudless, and the predominant film setting is а popular haunt for risky behaviours, Stella’s curiosity for life keeps her on the straight and narrow, against all odds. Non-professional actress Flavie Delangle conveys the character’s genuine exuberance at an instinctive level, letting herself be, rather than actually performing. Following her intimate thoughts and feelings at a relaxed rate, against the backdrop of the similarly slower-paced 1980s, we’re taken on a delightful and somewhat nostalgic journey back to a time when youth was still a risky period, but less besieged by external stimulation.
The film comes full circle, ending right where it began - a carefree vacation by the seaside in sunny Italy – suggesting that crucial life decisions are being postponed. Emotionally speaking, Léo Hinstin’s delicately observational cinematography - comprising mild filters and dim lights - contributes further to the blurred expectations surrounding the character’s future, and ultimately enhances a thrilling story.
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