Out in French cinemas on December 31, 2014, My Friend Victoria, adapted from a novel by Doris Lessing, is a beautiful film, both gentle and unexpected. Without fanfare, but with elegance and coherence, it gives food for thought.
In 2008, shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, Doris Lessing wrote « Victoria and the Staveneys », a long novella whose subtle manner and succinct language reflect the unembellished themes that were dear to her: insidious racism and social hypocrisy. (1) The novel is adapted with great fidelity by Jean-Paul Civeyrac, an intimist filmmaker fascinated by love beyond death (Through the Forest, 2005) and disconsolate adolescent disillusionment (Young Girls in Black, 2010). Essentially, an odour of death fleets through the story of the taciturn Victoria (Guslagie Malanda), the successive deaths of her relatives, but also of death itself.
Transposing to Paris a story set in London, and hence adapting certain dialogue, Civeyrac retains the simplicity of Doris Lessing’s novel and the richness of the contradictions that are portrayed. Screenwriter as well as director, he condenses its progression somewhat and makes Fanny, the childhood friend and adoptive sister of Victoria, an incarnation of the writer, narrating in literary voiceover to better discern Victoria’s fate. This is not a heroine’s story, of a rebel, rather it is of a woman pummelled by life, who attempts at a young age to find her place among racial, familial and social circumstances.
The story never lapses into caricature, hence, everyone can recognise his or her own behaviour. The Staveneys, a left-leaning, liberal, white middle-class family, though with the best of intentions, at the discovery of a mixed-race family member, cannot help but mark the difference.
It begins one evening when Edward looks after eight-year-old Victoria. This chance encounter quickly forgotten by Edward, will stay with Victoria forever, fascinated by the immense residence and the paternalistic generosity that welcomes her. Here she plunges into a cycle of social nostalgia, but also, without admitting it to herself or knowing what to make of it, a cycle of sentimentalism, which leads to a summer liaison with Thomas, the brother of Edward, of which Marie is born. Not revealing the child’s father is undoubtedly Victoria’s attempt to forget this troubled relationship in which she merely exists as the Other, but also the Other in her own self-image. But as Marie grows up without a father and Victoria loses Sam, the man she loves, Victoria worries about stability and Marie’s future, and hence reconnects with Thomas. She plunges again into ambiguity, opening to Marie a destiny that she will no longer control, anxious not to imprison her daughter into what she perceives of her own life: an impossibility, a failure.
Edward, who came to fetch her from school, had not been able to identify her: he could not imagine that she would be a little black girl. Realising his mistake, he was overcome with shame, but the damage was done: the world of Victoria had become a world of the other, where the colour of her skin made the difference. Rather than being just black, she would be a Black person through the eyes of White people; finding herself trapped within it. Unless she rebels like her adoptive sister, Fanny, who said to her: « They are not our masters and we are not their slaves. » (2) But Victoria does not listen to her. Sartre would have described this resignation as an inability to be « authentic ». (3) And Fanon would have spoken of a psychopathology: « This is because the black woman feels inferior that she aspires to be accepted into the white world. » (4)
While Victoria does not rebel, she nonetheless exhibits a stance of refusal, by leaving the Staveney’s country home. Rebellion does not come through words but through absence. Her absence from that world is in itself a revolt, undoubtedly passive but a means of protecting herself, while at the same time entrusting Marie in the hands of those who she thinks are better able to ensure her daughter’s future. This social consciousness, which passes through an internalisation of alienation, opens to this contradiction: giving her daughter the possibility of another experience, which will be her own and not a reproduction of her mother’s, miserably sleepwalking, tightrope walking in a society that assimilates her while denying her full membership, seeing her as foreign because she is black. « Crème caramel » or « milk chocolate » to use the grandfather Staveney’s clumsy terms, Marie will have a better chance later on to break the glass ceiling of the dollhouse that Victoria was able to gradually evolve. For Charlie, Victoria’s other child, who is black, to whom the Staveneys do not extend the same generosity reserved for their descendant, what is left for him is to watch the trains go by, hoping they will take him somewhere else.
My Friend Victoria is a ballad in a maze of hopes, fears and good intentions, soft as a whisper, cruel as reality. The voice of Fanny, which recounts the story and wonders what she could do to make it different, is not a caption to a photo that suggests to the audience what to think, but a literary voice that enhances the music and reinforces the elegance of the performance. This is similar to James Ivory, to employ romanticism to give the sense of human melodrama-provoking self-denial faced with social anthropophagy. Civeyrac brings his camera close to the faces, not in search of a misplaced sentimentality but in order to sense the pulsation of the intimate layer of contradictions. Without catchphrases and with extreme sensitivity, My Friend Victoria is a means to understand the assignment endured because of the colour of ones skin, and its concomitant internalisation of inferiority. It is in this awareness and the force of this emotion that the viewer may find creativity, breaking out of fixation and repetition.
1. Doris Lessing, Victoria and the Staveneys, J’ai lu – Flammarion No. 9519, 125 p, 6.20 ..
2. Here Jean-Paul Civeyrac reverses the role of Fanny, named Bessie in the novel, who proposes to Victoria to offer a DNA paternity test to the Staveney family (p. 93).
3. John Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, Gallimard, Paris, 1976 (1st ed. 1943), p. 376.
4. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, Seuil, coll. Points, Paris, 1972, p. 48.Translation from French by Beti Ellerson
Partnership with [African Women in Cinema Blog]///Article N° : 12675