After triumphantly enchanting the audience as free-willed artist Marianne in Céline Sciamma’s instant classic Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), Noémie Merlant appeared as a protagonist in two Cannes competition films – Jacques Audiard’ Paris, 13th District and her own full-length directorial debut, Mi Iubita, Mon Amour. Tellingly, its title, composed of two parts, mirroring each other, respectively in Romanian and French language, foreshadows the narrative double-bind of the film’s 95 minute runtime: difficult love on the ‘wrong’ side of the border.
The film opens with a firmly framed, affective close up of a woman’s torso, her body braced outside a car window – shouts (girlfriends galore), blasts of electronic music (composed by French artist Saycet), and giggles in the background conjure an image of this road trip as a fated one. A journey begins in the middle, when en route to Jeanne’s (Merlant) hen-do, their car gets stolen at a rest stop. The film gives little to no context why Jeanne, seen smirking at the thought of becoming someone’s wife, would agree to a pre-nuptial celebration in Romania, since that would mean a trans-European car drive. However, the tone is mostly joyful but tinted by the slightest trace of melancholia, as the French trio of friends figure out their way out of the logistical mess.
While despairing on the road, the women encounter a couple of youngsters – Nino (Gimi-Nicole Covaci) and his younger brother – who promise to help and shelter them for the time being. Even at the film’s beginning, the use of classic narrative structure (obstacle, overcoming, obstacle, repeat) is prominent to the point of predictability, but the surprising (and risky) element of Merlant’s storytelling has to do more with content than form. Ethical and political content, that is. Taken aback by how good the Romanian’s French is, Jeanne and her friends do not inquire about the lives of their hosts, until they hear a language they haven’t heard before. Turns out, Nino and his family, who are of Roma heritage, have emigrated to France years ago and have since made a living off selling clothes they found in Parisian trash cans.
Such social themes of emigration, integration, and the precarious living of the Roma ethnic minority in France have already been a big part of Merlant’s ARTE-funded short film, Shakira (2020), for the making of which she drew from her own experience volunteering for specific NGOs, and hired predominantly Romani people to collaboratively tell a politically charged story that serves as criticism for the French government’s xenophobia in the last decade. A lot has happened since the ex- president Nicolas Sarkozy evicted and deported thousands of Romani people living in squatted land camps in 2010.
Ten years later, Shakira stands as a reminder of the forced eviction of more than 50 families from their temporary camp residences, sentenced to a life in limbo on the streets without the right to work or study. However, a viewer would struggle to see the imminent necessity of Merlant’s cause for plot in both short and feature film. It seems she has tapped into a less-represented thread of French subjectivity (in racism and xenophobia against Roma people) but there is a bigger challenge in making a feature film out of the subject where politics does not take centre-stage.
When Jeanne and Nico spend more time together, Mi Iubita Mon Amour shapes up more like a romantic film than a political one. Tropes such as meeting the family, the first kiss, ‘the chase’ and such constellations of gestures that characterise young love blooming amidst a scorching hot Romanian summer compose the film’s middle act. It is the affective nature of how these significant moments are portrayed – the chemistry between Merlant and Covaci, who also co-wrote the film together, is blazing, captured by Evgenia Alexandrova’s oneiric cinematography – that revitalises an otherwise meandering second act. However, by the film’s end, the resolution comes too swiftly and the tension that owes its built-up to images, sounds, and acting (instead of relying on its often empty-worded dialogue), deflates.
Merlant and Covaci form a promising duo, both on screen and as writers, but the flatness of the film’s ethical and political messages dulls its otherwise lulling effect. Lots of viewers would take issue with how little attention Jeanne and Nico both pay to his age (he’s seventeen!) and her husband-to-be (who appears in the film but is quickly sidelined).
A summer love story in the breath of Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (2016), Mi Iubita Mon Amour never quite manages to tighten a smothering grip on its forbidden passions, nor explore the deeper contradiction a young woman faces in such circumstances. Even if we grant the film the merit of being way better in showing, rather than telling, of these sensual turmoils, Merlant’s directorial sway would benefit from more fire and less smoke.
Savina Petkova is a Bulgarian London-based freelance critic. In her spare time, she is a PhD candidate with a project on animal metamorphoses in contemporary European films. She lives from one film festival to the other, always on the hunt for animality, otherness, and visceral filmmaking. Savina admires bold story-telling as much as feeling-telling and defines her approach to criticism as sharp and ethically challenging. She is a regular MUBI Notebook contributor and writes for Electric Ghost Magazine, photogenie, and Girls On Tops. You can find her on Twitter @SavinaPetkova