Talking Pictures

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Foxfire (France, Canada, Spain 2012).

Posted by keith1942 on November 18, 2013


This is the new film by Laurent Cantet {who directed The Class, 2008). He obviously is interested in youth films and is very effective with young and less experienced casts. The film is set in upstate New York in the 1950s. Foxfire is the name chosen by an all-female ‘gang’. This is an adaptation of the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, foxfire confessions of a girl gang (1993). I was so interested by the film that I read the book, the first time I had come across the author. She is apparently a popular writer in the USA and has a high reputation. The film follows the book fairly closely.

The tale is told by Madeleine (Maddy) Wirtz (Katie Cosent) years after the actual events. In both the book and the film Maddy warns the reader / viewer that the telling is based on her record at the time, but may also include mis-rememberings and downright lies. Maddy’s record is a history of the gang, but also a study of the characters in the gang and, most particularly, a treasure of memories of the leader, Margaret Ann Sadovsky (‘Legs’ – Raven Adamson).

The film opens with a rape sequence, which is important in terms of the motivations of this group of teenage girls. Then, after credits, we see another girl climb up and knock on the window – Maddy’s window. At least one review suggested that Legs has entered town and her arrival sparks the girl’s gang. Actually, Legs is already established: she had been sent away to her grandmother and has now returned.

The genesis of the gang is a reaction against a bullying teacher at the school that all the five founder members attend: Legs, Maddy, Goldie (Claire Mazerolle), Lana (Paige Moyles) and Rita (Madeleine Bisson). They are given their own distinctive personalities. Legs is the charismatic leader, Maddy the gang scribe, Goldie is a tomboy, Lana voluptuous, and Rita the girl who is picked on. There is also a German Shepherd, Toby, another victim of male violence. From an initial prank to punish the teacher, Foxfire’s actions develop to punish those who oppress – especially men.

There is not what might be called a gang ideology. But Legs is strongly influenced by an ex-priest and socialist (Father Theriault – Gary Reineke), now down and out, whom she meets and talks to in a local park. From him she develops a rather incoherent amalgam of proletarian and religious rhetoric.

There is a car sequence that occurs [rather differently] twice in the film. In the first instance we witness a joy ride that ends badly but not tragically by an old covered bridge. This leads to institutional justice and Legs’ incarceration in a reformatory. Following a long spell in prison Legs returns, apparently reformed but more driven than ever. The now larger gang rent an old and dilapidated building out of town and set up what attempt to be a commune. Their actions become more direct and targeted: and targeted at men who increasingly seem to represent the enemy.

Their situation and the campaign against sexual oppression develop to a serious criminal act with tragic consequences. At this point the second car sequence occurs, ending by the old bridge but badly. Foxfire comes to an end, Legs dies or disappears and Maddy keeps the notebook until years later when she inscribes their story.

The development of the girl group and their crude campaign is fascinating. And Cantet’s direction and the cast’s performances are excellent. Whilst certain part of the plot are unlikely the film remains convincing.

Intriguingly there are two important sequences in the book, which do not appear in the film. One is a house of serial gangbangs observed by Legs. This chapter reads disturbingly and I can understand it is not being in the film. It would certainly be disturbing and would have certainly raised the certificate from 15 to 18. However, it is important in motivating Leg’s more extreme behaviour in the second part of the story. Presumably the move of the rape to act as an opening sequence is a substitute.

The absence of other sequence is more puzzling. This is when Legs climbs a large water tower: a site where young men have tested their virility and physical powers but failed to reach the top. Legs, of course, is successful. This struck me as potentially an extremely cinematic sequence. It also highlights a side of Legs’ character and her hold over the rest of the gang.

The film does not end with the final part of Maddy’s record. Some years after the demise of the gang she sees a photograph – a woman who could be Legs alongside Fidel Castro in Cuba. At least one viewer found this finale implausible. However, it is in the original novel. It struck me as poetic. Cuban liberation [like the defeat in Vietnam] is something that the US establishment cannot accept. This casts a retrospective light on Legs. The British equivalent would be a British character who decamps to the side of the Argentineans in the Malvinas. The Sight & Sound review struck me as rather moralistic about the later exploits of Foxfire in the film and characterised the post-penal Legs as a bully. It added “there is something depressing about the inevitability of the downhill slide from idealism to criminality..”. The review also characterises Legs as ‘imbibing communist ideas’, a serious misnomer. This is not my sense of the book or the film, though the elisions in the film do weaken aspect of the tale. Legs’ rebellion is unformed and tends to incoherence. Moreover there are quite disparate values within the group, highlighted when Legs fails to persuade the group to accept an Afro-American member. But she and her comrades are fighting actual exploitative and oppressive treatment, and these are directly depicted in the film. This would seem to explain why Cantet and his fellow screenwriter Robin Campillo open the film in the way that they do. And, of course, the retention in the film of the Cuban/Castro photograph suggests a radical strand which outlasts the life of Foxfire itself.

I would recommend both the book and the film to potential readers and viewers.


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