Set in Strasbourg, Cécile Ducrocq’s sophomore feature, Her Way, opens with Marie (Laure Calamy), a confident, independent, and optimistic prostitute, seeing a client. This insight into Marie’s daily life shows us what sex work involves: the small talk of money, things that could cost extra, what the client wants, and the awkwardness of it all. There’s even the use of an oral sex condom, which is a rare sight in cinema.
Afterwards, Marie writes about her clients in a notebook — their names, brief descriptions of activity, and cost. This scene is a tribute to real-life Swiss prostitute and activist Grisélidis Réal, who wrote about her experiences in The Little Black Book, which Ducrocq and Calamy were inspired by, having both been fascinated by the subject of prostitution for a long time. “In [the book], [Réal] wrote down her thoughts about her clients, what they liked, what they didn’t like, and some rather funny observations about each one,” Calamy shared in a press release.
Marie is determined to provide a better life for her 17-year-old son, Adrien (Nissim Renard), who describes his mother as an at-home hairdresser. After being expelled from cooking school because he put weed in a dessert his teacher ate, Adrien has a hard time getting into another school — the expulsion on his record looks terrible, plus he only gets average grades. Settling for nothing less, Marie aims to get Adrien into Perrandier, a private cooking school, which has costly tuition of €9,000. Although Adrien wants to be a chef, he says the school is for rich kids, not someone like him. He has low self-esteem, which causes him to have a negative and apathetic outlook on life. Marie, on the other hand, is driven by success. She is willing to do anything for her seemingly ungrateful son to try and come up with the money — including going to work for Bruno (Sam Louwyck) at his sex club in Offenbourg, Germany.
Her Way captures the French socio-political landscape quite aptly. Prostitution was legal in France until April 2016, when the French National Assembly voted to punish customers of prostitutes with a fine of €1,500. Marie is comfortable with her job as a prostitute and actively protests for the law’s repeal with her friends. “For five years now, the law has lowered our rates. The client takes the risk, so he sets the price. We’re forced to hide and work in deserted areas where we’re vulnerable.” Marie wants more power over her profession — where, when, and how much she charges, stating, “it’s my choice. It’s my body.” In the film, Marie also comments on the freedom and safety of being an independent sex worker with loyal customers rather than working for a pimp.
While the film doesn’t glamorize Marie’s job, it doesn’t show the difficult aspects of sex work either. There’s an uncomfortable scene in the sex club, but Ducrocq’s exploration of prostitution shows little diversity of experience and focuses on complete freedom of judgment in a tame way. There are still plenty of entertaining scenes that show Marie bonding with fellow prostitutes, being jealous of younger competition, and trying to trick johns — but as her desperation grows, Marie puts herself in danger by blackmailing customers and resorting to theft. That being said, the film isn’t exactly about being a sex worker; it’s about how far a mother is willing to go to provide for her son. Sex scenes are shown, but they’re kept modest and offered with titillation.
Exploring prostitution and school drop-out themes, Her Way plays somewhat like a kitchen-sink drama with its lively camerawork aiding the fiery mother-son dynamic. It’s gritty enough despite not getting down and dirty with the dangers of Marie’s profession. The characters have unlikeable traits, which may turn some viewers off, and the writing can lack emotional investment; however, Marie is a strong character, and her passion shines through juxtaposing Adrien’s apathy. The ending shows Adrien finally coming through and helping himself, but it’s so abrupt that it feels unsatisfying — it wasn’t earned.
Ducrocq’s script spends far too long developing the set-up. The first 30 minutes are spent trying to get Adrien accepted into cooking school. The film at least uses this time to highlight the attitudes and dynamics of its characters, but it isn’t until halfway through that the premise is genuinely underway. For all the shortcomings the writing offers, Her Way is beautifully shot with lovely cinematography and a complementary score. Noé Bach, director of photography, expertly lights various scenes from brightly lit clubs to gloomy parking lots, each with its impressive atmosphere.
Ducrocq wanted to show a different side to sex work: “Every time cinema takes an interest in prostitutes, it’s to show how they try to get out of it. But I wanted to show a different side: the under-represented independent sex workers who claim they are no victims. Marie’s challenge is not to get out of prostitution but to offer her son a future. That’s why Marie is back on the street in the last image of the film, but it is no failure.”
Her Way is in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema on August 26 from Blue Finch Film Releasing.
by Toni Stanger