Lovers of the literary and cinematographic tradition of the soap opera style, lovers of romantic cinema, fans of historical films or fans of today’s series, rejoice! “The Place of Another”, crossing the destinies of two orphans in France during the Great War, fulfills all expectations. Much more, Aurélia Georges, by transposing freely, with her co-screenwriter Maud Ameline, a ‘sensational novel’ by the British Wilkie Collins [‘The New Magdelen’, 1873], updates with talent the codes and genres at the origin of the 7th art and succeeds in a breathless melodrama with strangely contemporary resonances. In addition to the springs of criminal suspense and the hints of lyricism of an emancipatory sentimental epic -supported by the musical composition of Frédéric Vercheval-, the fiction, in the purity of its forms, explores the feminine condition and class antagonisms. within a bereaved society, crossed by violence and hatred like underground echoes of the bloody War of 14 and other destructive conflicts of our humanity.
A poor orphan determined to ward off fate
Beginning 14. The earth is still cold, the bare gray trees and the immense sky of a chalky whiteness. The opulent interior of a bourgeois house, a silent ritual of tea time interrupted by the sounds of loud voices. A long shot taken from outside shows us the fight accompanied by cries: a young girl is thrown out and walks away with rapid steps, her small suitcase in her hand. Thus goes, chased away unceremoniously, Nélie (Lyna Khoudri, subtle and nuanced interpreter), a domestic time, again delivered to the street, to the thrusts priced against a carriage door of some well-dressed amateur of girls of nothing .
So when the opportunity arises, Nélie, fierce and determined, agrees to become a Red Cross auxiliary nurse and joins the front (‘you will be our stretcher bearer’). Without failing, she accompanies the last moments of inoperable young soldiers with an attention or a voice (by reading mezzo voce the love letter of a fiancée to a dying man).
She becomes acquainted with Rose (Maud Wyler, tense playing with complex modulations) another young woman of rich extraction in refined attire, embellished with fabrics and a pendant medallion, an orphan like her. Coming from Switzerland, she wants to cross the front lines to find refuge and comfort in Lorraine with a widowed aunt without descendants, who could assure her a future since the lost person carries a letter of recommendation from her deceased father.
In the retreat barracks of the small battalion of French soldiers, plunged into darkness, the two women suddenly lie down on the ground to escape enemy shelling. The shards have fallen and the smoke cleared, Nélie sees Rose’s body stretched out, the head wound and the lifeless face.
The military convoy that had already left left them alone there. A few moments of hesitation and Nélie puts on the clothes and the cape, tears off the medallion and takes the papers (and the precious letter). A first test of her new identity comes with the arrival of a German officer to whom she tells her ‘story’. Immediate consequence of this chance transformed into necessity: she has a pass in the name of Rose Juillet.
New life (of castle), reader with the rich Eléonore
Upon her arrival in the large house surrounded by a vast wooded park, almost a forest, and decorated with a variety of flowers carefully maintained by a dedicated gardener, Nélie carefully takes her bearings. But the mistress of the place, endowed with abundant domesticity, Eléonore (Sabine Azéma, immense actress with a hypersensitive game) opens her arms to him with confidence. The orphan immediately displays her taste for literature and books. Books that she fondles in the library, the first place discovered before lying down on the soft carpet, to the great astonishment of a servant who has come to tell her that her room is ready.
Little by little the young woman is integrated into the daily life of the house, recognized by the servants, esteemed by Julien (Laurent Poitrevaux, actor with a sober and fair acting), Protestant pastor and regular visitor, – a young man visibly attracted by the intelligence and beauty of a person with charm devoid of ostentation. But it is above all Eléonore,–beyond the rigid principles of class superiority causing her to dismiss without qualms a little servant who had tried to conceal a budding pregnancy-, who is transformed before our eyes over the course of the readings. taught aloud by her faithful ‘reader’, sometimes quoting the Bible and in love with Victor Hugo de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam… A literary and intellectual friend capable, on her return from the Temple, of telling the one who took her in the reasons for its agreement with the ‘sermon’ of the young pastor inviting the faithful to transcend the climate of violence and hatred by a simple attention to our humanity in the minute details of daily life.
Shadows and light, revelations and disturbing public order
Beyond the initial inspiration drawn from a British writer contemporary with Charles Dickens, we are immersed with terror and delight in a criminal thriller fiction borrowing as much from the writings of the French authors of “Fantômas” as from Louis Feuillade, the first adapter on the screen  adventures of the masked assassin. We also adhere to a melodrama with multiple twists, sometimes reviving the fantastic dimension of the cinema of Georges Franju, himself an admirer of Feuillade (as well as the slow advance of the vigilante Judex with the head of a bird filmed from behind in the middle of a crowd petrified of disguised socialites, in the eponymous film released in 1963). Or rediscovering the disturbing atmosphere dear to the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock (thus the irruption of ‘Madeleine’ resurrecting in a halo of green light on leaving the bathroom where Judy has just perfected her resemblance to the close bun with the ‘ dead’ loved by Scottie, the dizzy hero of ‘Cold Sweats’, released in 1958).
Without deflowering too much the circumstances of the eruption of the real Rose Juillet in the middle of a party when a young woman sings an air by Gabriel Fauré accompanied on the piano by the mistress of the house, the formal bias of the director leads us to the borders fantastic, so much the vision of the orphan stripped of her identity walking towards the usurper is akin to a return from the dead, a striking evocation that reshuffles the cards beyond all the social and legal rules then dominant .
Aurélia Georges and her director of photography Jacques Girault do not overplay virtuoso staging. However, they skilfully use the restitution of a time when the daylight enters largely through the large bay windows of a vast residence and highlights the shimmering of the dressed outfits and the opulence of the decoration while accompanying the deep complicity emotional relationship between Eléonore and her protegee.
Yet, after dark, evening shadows and claws of the past can still erupt from the nooks of a house dimly lit by kerosene lamps and flickering candles. Then, madness and violence, the temptation of crime to repair the injustice or the confessions launched in a hoarse cry tear the hushed silence.
Logic of the heart, emancipatory power
Until the end of this incredible fiction, between social melodrama and fable on the edge of the fantastic, until the last shot, the filmmaker holds our hand and opens our eyes to the realities of yesterday and today. , quite disturbing. While avoiding the pitfalls of historical reconstruction, Aurélia Geoges suggests, in addition to the particularly deadly violence of the Great War, the constant fear at the rear, the exacerbation of tensions and the harshness of a very hierarchical society, in particular for single women of modest origin.
The peaks of lyricism (and the additional music internal to the scenes), modulated by the original score by Frédéric Vercheval, are commensurate with the secret dream of a young girl coming from the streets and prostitution, ‘saved’ by her love. of literature, fiercely clinging to the idea of escaping a feminine condition of humiliation, submission and misery.
“The Place of Another”, contrary to social conventions and the established order, – an order reinforced by assignments to loneliness and widowhood amplified by the War mowing down men -, focuses our gaze on the mysterious relationship of attention and affection, tied between two women of different origins and ages, through the time of sharing and the common passion for the literary imagination. Fiction, transcending genres, reaches other shores, more intimate, more moving. Going beyond questions about the foundations of justice and the corseted society of the time, shifting the boundaries between truth and lies, Aurélia Georges’ film elegantly accompanies Eléonore’s late emancipation and Nélie’s budding freedom. Like the promise of an emancipation to be transmitted to the younger generations (and spectators) of today.
“The Place of Another”, film by Aurélia Georges – release on January 19, 2022