Director: Marie-Claude Treilhou
Starring: Ingrid Bourgoin
If I had to describe Simone Barbes ou La Vertu in the simplest possible terms I would say that it’s the kind of film people mean when they disdainfully describe art house movies (particularly European art house) as being about people who talk about nothing and do even less. This is less a narrative film than a character sketch, and while it occasionally shows sparks of life, it ultimately falls limp.
The film is divided into three long scenes, all of them having to do in one way or another with sex, and connected by the character Simone Barbes (Ingrid Bourgoin). The first scene takes place in the porno theatre where she works as an usher and observes her and her co-worker as they bitch about this and that, as co-workers are wont to do. The films being shown in the theatre are never seen, though bits and pieces are heard as patrons come and go from the screening rooms and the film has a lot of fun with one patron’s futile attempts to sneak from one screening room to another. Simone and her co-worker toy with his a bit, allowing him think that he’s going to pull it off only to bust him at the last minute. This particular scene is defined by a lightness that is lacking in the rest of the film. At one point the director of one of the porn films shows up to get a look at the turn-out and comes out of the screening ranting about the way the projectionist is ruining his work, which he sees as art and not just a sexually charged diversion.
When her shift is over Simone leaves the theatre and goes to the bar where her girlfriend works to wait for her. Though ostensibly a lesbian bar, there seems to be an inordinate number of straight men there trying to pick up women – some people just don’t know how to read a room. Of the three scenes this one is the most interesting because there’s so much going on and it isn’t just Simone talking to one other character. There’s a stage show in this scene that's like something out of a Fellini movie, it’s so bizarre and over the top (if you must know: two scantily clad women engage in a choreographed sword fight inspired by gladiators in the Roman Coliseum). Eventually Simone gets to see her girlfriend, who apologetically informs her that her shift is going to last a while longer. Simone sadly shrugs it off because this happens all the time and Bourgoin, who was not an actor by trade but actually was a movie theatre usher when the film was made, does a nice and subtle job of expressing how Simone is both fed up at never coming first in her girlfriend’s life as well as quietly accepting of the way things are and the unlikelihood of things changing.
Simone leaves the bar and wanders the streets for a while, eventually being picked up by a guy who mistakes her for a prostitute. She sets him straight and they drive around for a while and though he continues to hint about sleeping with her, he’s quite timid about it. In the end he simply ends up listening to her as she engages in a long monologue about the state of her life. The scene is well acted but goes on just a bit too long and you end up feeling a bit bad for the guy, who is obviously very lonely, because he really didn’t know what he was in for when he stopped his car.
Though the film is short, running at just under 80 minutes, it does tend to drag because there’s so little forward movement. Simone Barbes is an interesting character and Bourgoin inhabits her with ease, but the film never manages to feel like anything more than a rehearsal for something bigger. Simone Barbes isn’t without its moments but there’s ultimately not enough to it to sustain it as a film.