Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Female Agents/Carve Her Name With Pride

[This is a review I wrote back in August for Unfortunately there was a delay in the latest online issue being published (it's just out now) and due to time constraints Laura decided to drop some of the film material.]

Female Agents
is inspired - mark you - by a Times obituary spotted by director Jean-Paul Salomé in 2004. It celebrated the life and achievements of Lise Villameur, one of the few women Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents to have been honoured after the end of the war. “I wanted to pay them homage,” Salomé is quoted as saying. Now this counts as fair warning, twice over.

In the film Villameur is characterised as Louise Desfontaines, played by Sophie Marceau. With her brother, also an SOE agent, she is charged with assembling a crack team for a special mission. It is 1944: an English spy, a geologist who was gathering material vital to the success of D-Day, has been wounded and captured. The Germans holding him don’t know who he is or understand his importance – yet. He must be sprung. Desfontaines recruits two more servicewomen and a prostitute under a death-sentence for murder, none of whom has operational experience.

Cut to France: a rather dashing SS Intelligence Colonel believes, alone among his comrades, that the forthcoming Allied invasion will not be made at Calais but in Normandy. He needs proof, and knows the English geologist is there, somewhere...a report comes in of an unidentified man in a military hospital speaking English in his sleep, and the Colonel sets off to interrogate him. We should pause to note that one of the women in Desfontaines’ team left the Colonel standing at the altar two years ago in Paris.

Though the set-up is as ludicrous as the summary above suggests, there’s no reason to suppose, at this point, that Female Agents won’t at least entertain. Most of the film is taken up with the female agents’ increasingly frantic attempts to prevent Colonel Heindrich (yes) from reaching Rommel with the information he is gradually piecing together about D-Day, but the progression from one set-piece to another seldom generates any real tension or gives a clear sense of where, beyond resolving this McGuffin, the focus of the film lies. It looks, frankly, superb, but what appears on the screen far outweighs anything that happens there.

The incidental failings are numerous: a note which was begging to be burned, eaten or simply flung out of a window the moment it was written is left intact; the Gestapo torturers are surprisingly ineffective apart from the one time when the plot requires them not to be; four times a drawn pistol serves to remind backsliders of where their patriotic duty lies (none attempts to run at the next opportunity); the runaway bride, who freaks out at the suggestion of even seeing Colonel Heindrich again, is shortly afterwards attempting to date and kill him. When and how was she talked round? We don’t know.

Though the content is adult, the emotions are adolescent, save for those generated in a very few scenes by Marceau. Her character is determined to the point of being icy, and when her control breaks in moments of terror, fatigue or rage, she suggests what Female Agents could and should have provided: an understanding of what it must have been like to be squeezed between terrible necessities, and of the sacrifices people were prepared to make, voluntarily, without coercion and in full understanding of the circumstances and the stakes. Individual moral compromise is splashed all over, but that is not the same thing.

No such problem with Carve Her Name With Pride (1958), and no loop-holes of “inspiration”: we are told at the beginning that this is the story of Violette Szabo, and story – as opposed to spectacle - is what we get. London girl seeks French boy for the 14th July celebrations to appease her French mother; girl finds boy, a charming officer of the Foreign Legion. Will they...? Of course. This is straightforward, but pleasantly and effectively done, and provides the emotional background for what follows: recruitment by SOE, training and active service. It is clear that Szabo is fighting for home, liberty, honour, memory.

Curiously, while Carve Her Name is strong in all the areas where Female Agents is deficient (namely, character motivation, background and development; emotional involvement; a strong story arc) the film is so concerned to tell us who Szabo was that it doesn’t tell us much about what she did. Whatever else is said about them, the Female Agents do get up to a lot, though most of it closer to the A-Team than the reality of creating and organising networks, acting as couriers and collecting intelligence. Carve Her Name suggests all of this but never really explores it. More information, or simply screen time, would have been welcome. For instance, Szabo was in France for three months before her famous engagement with the Germans; in the film she has barely parachuted in. Similarly, we see her receiving codes and cyphers training, but she never actually sends a message. Barring its end, it seems an oddly inactive service and makes the story thin where it should be meaty.

Nevertheless, it is certainly a finished film in a way Female Agents isn’t. Virginia McKenna is proper and winning, with the early hints of strength shown to harden as her training progresses; the acting from the other leads, who include Paul Scofield, is good and often very good; the supporting characters support without need of formal introduction; the lighting is wonderful, especially in the interrogation sequence, craftily and movingly handled by image, suggestion and reaction; and the king-and-country coda is genuinely touching. The script does its job without really taking flight, which makes it overall a solid three- or four-star film, worth seeing without being essential.

On the other hand, if someone suggests watching Female Agents on DVD, resist.


Female Agents wasn’t helped by its English title, which in French was Les Femmes de l’Ombre (Women of the Shadows). This is clearly playing off L’Armée des Ombres (1969) by Jean-Pierre Melville, a flat, unglamorous portrayal of the French Resistance, much closer to the reality, filmed with a genuine artistic sensibility and now available on DVD.

Books: Carve Her Name With Pride by R.J. Minney continues to be in print; the latest (2006) edition is from Pen and Sword, price £8.99. A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE by Sarah Helm is published in paperback by Abacus (2006), price £8.99; Atkins ran the women agents of 'F' Section in SOE and appears frequently in Carve Her Name With Pride. Leo Marks, who also appears unnamed in the film, eventually had his memoir Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker’s War 1941-45 approved for publication by the UK government in 1998 (latest edition Sutton, 2007, £8.99). He was the actual author of the poem “The Life That I Have”, which features in the film.

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