Female Agents

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Jean-Paul Salomé, director and co-writer of Female Agents (Les Femmes de l’Ombre in the original French), got the idea for his 2008 film from an obituary. While in London in 2004 he read about Lise Villameur, who’d just died aged 98. During the Second World War she’d been an agent for the French Section of Britain’s Special Operations Executive. Parachuted into France to set up her own cell and run her own agents, Villameur was described by the folk at SOE training school as “quite imperturbable… would remain cool and collected in any situation . . . she was very much ahead of her fellow students”.

That’s exactly how Sophie Marceau plays Louise Desfontaines, the fictionalised version of Villameur, in this cross between war movie and spy thriller – as a cool, imperturbable, serious woman on a mission, with no time for frippery or messing about.

Things can get a bit pious, in other words. But there’s some joy to be had from watching the war/spy thriller approached from a different direction, like meeting an old friend with a new haircut. Early on Salomé gives us the getting-the-gang-together bit, with Louise assembling, Dirty Dozen style, her small gang of female accomplices from a rag bag of misfits, refuseniks and criminals. Then there’s the bit where they do their training and find that they all barely get on. The bit where they are each assigned a new identity, issued with a cyanide pill and told to hold out for 48 hours if interrogated by the Germans, to give their fellow spies time to get far away. Parachuting into enemy territory. An encounter with the Nazis. Capture. Liberation. A death here, a betrayal there.

There’s nothing you won’t have seen before, though Marceau and her fellow actors – Julie Depardieu, Marie Gillain, Déborah François and (eventually) Maya Sansa make a plucky group, even though at times it can be difficult to tell them apart, Marceau excepted.

For those spitting feathers over the notion of the lady spy, a couple of guys to leaven the mixture. Julien Boisellier plays Louise’s brother and fellow saboteur and Moritz Bleibtreu plays Karl Heindrich, the canny Nazi who is convinced that the Allies are going to launch an invasion of Europe via Normandy, though everyone in High Command believes it’s going to be Calais (much closer). He’s right, they’re wrong and this aspect to the film, though under-developed, does give Bleibtreu something to get his teeth into and to deliver the only really nuanced character in the whole thing.

Moritz Bleibtreu as Karl Heindrich
Moritz Bleibtreu as Karl Heindrich

Eventually the female agents and the canny Nazi will collide when Louise and co are tasked with killing Heindrich and use one of their number as a honey trap.

Talking of which, there are more shots of women in their underwear, and even more shots of women undressed, than you might expect in a film asserting the importance of female agents, but sex is a weapon, it’s suggested, and a useful one in the arsenal of the female spy.

How long is this movie? The one I watched was two hours. The IMDb says it’s 148 minutes, so someone’s been busy with the scissors. Wikipedia says it’s 112 minutes, which is even more confusing. In the two-hour version there’s a sense of where a cut might have come, towards the end, when the action seems to jump forwards with a few new developments unexplained. But it doesn’t harm the flow of things too much. Maybe at 112 it would be too short? At 148 almost certainly too long.

More money would have made it a better film. Female Agents has ambition but it doesn’t have the budget to match. But it’s a good looking movie and in many respects exactly the sort of old-school war film you might have grown up watching on TV on a wet Saturday afternoon. Coded greetings, derring-do, action, jeopardy, all the familiar elements. Except with ladies.

Female Agents – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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