Inside Out 2012: ‘Bye Bye Blondie’ is suffused with libertine barbarism and moral ambivalence

Bye Bye Blondie

Written and directed by Virginie Despentes

France, 2011

Perhaps a paean to the 1960 stage musical and its 1963 film adaptation, Bye Bye Birdie, Virginie Despentes’ Bye Bye Blondie tries to be the social satire its American counterpart was. But with a protagonist suffused with libertine barbarism and a narrative of moral ambivalence, the film, quite ironically, presents the characters as malevolent, not society.

In the northeastern French city of Nancy, Gloria (Béatrice Dalle) lives a decidedly involuntary bohemian lifestyle, spending her time drifting from record shops and bars. Meanwhile, Frances (Emmanuelle Béart), her once childhood summer romance, is a successful television host in Paris.

Her life unfulfilled, Frances plays a beard in a lavender marriage to a writer, Claude (Pascal Greggory), and in order to regain passion in her life, she attempts to reconnect with Gloria. Drastically different from when they last met, the two women must try to acclimatize themselves with the present incarnations of their nostalgic memories.

Along with a story set in the present, the film will often transition to Gloria (Soko) and Frances’ (Clara Ponsot) relationship in the past, shedding light on the genesis of their original relationship. This is where the story initially falls apart.

The first time we meet young Gloria is amidst an argument with her parents. The quarrel itself is fairly conventional in nature, but the reaction she has to it is not. With a flurry of kicking and screaming, Gloria is eventually sent to a mental health institution, and rightfully so.

Once there, the film goes on a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest examination on how society constrains the freedom of freethinking individuals. But unlike Jack Nicholson’s sardonic and ambiguous performance in the latter, Soko’s, and later Dalle’s, is not nearly as nuanced.

Confusing loud screeching with actual emoting, Soko, as Gloria, makes the same acting mistakes as Thomas Horn in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Without real dimension to her character, Gloria’s shrill portrayal makes us question her mental faculties. She doesn’t do drugs, and only drinks occasionally, so, by using Occam’s razor and by evaluating Soko’s facile performance, we can only conclude that she is, indeed, a little bit off kilter (the film, quite frustratingly, tries to justify this inanity by saying she is ‘punk’).    

But for all of its drawbacks, the flashback sequences at least plod along at a reasonable pace, which is more than can be said for the present-day narrative. After returning from scenes set in the past, the film will delve back into its featured relationship, but from one return to the next, the relationship itself doesn’t change very much. Seemingly stagnant, the spotlight on the adult Gloria and Frances moves at a snails-pace, making the film’s pacing uneven when compared with their teenage versions. Tedious to say the least, the film’s 97 running times drags ad infinitum.

Following her abhorrently trifle 2000 film, Basie Moi, writer-director, Virginie Despentes, shows that she’s incapable of making a film that doesn’t devolve into degeneracy. Not only does her film feature an irredeemably flawed character of debased ethics, she contrives to have the film’s reality capitulate to her asinine morals. While her contemporary, Gaspar Noé, is offensively provocative for artistic reasons, Despentes, in Bye Bye Blondie, does so for reasons far more egotistical.

- Justin Li

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By Justin Li

Born, raised, and educated in Toronto, Justin joined Sound on Sight in 2012 and has since been accepted into the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS).

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