This Anaïs in Love review contains mild spoilers.
Anaïs enters her film like a pinball.
She’s late to meet her landlord, she owes money on rent, she has to install her new fire alarm, she’s late to a party, she has to get dressed, she has to leave, she has to wait for someone to ride in the elevator with her bike because she’s claustrophobic, she has to take the stairs, she injures her knee, she has to rub ointment on her injured knee, she has to run to meet her boyfriend at a movie, she’s late, they miss the movie, she tells her boyfriend she needs an abortion.
It’s a whirlwind introduction to the lead of Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet’s Anaïs in Love, the latest in a recent line of anti-heroines who are far better at fucking the wrong people than getting a job. Call it millennial malaise, call it burnout, call it an annoying expression of privilege, but there’s a reason this character keeps popping up in fiction. And this film is among the best — and gayest – of the genre.
The blueprint for this kind of tale is Girlfriends (1978), Claudia Weill’s portrait of a young female photographer struggling to adjust after her best friend and roommate gets married. There is no Girls and no Frances Ha without Girlfriends. But I think to fully understand this subgenre it’s important to go back even further.
Old Hollywood loved an heiress. So many of the best screwball romances from It Happened One Night to Bringing Up Baby followed a working man and the rich, chaotic woman giving him grief. There’s a natural progression from those characters to the more contemporary Manic Pixie Dream Girl movies that kept the charm and chaos while removing the humanity and humor.
The latter were the female characters millennial women were raised on. Those were the aspirations presented to white cis girls with brown hair and an interest in men. Shows like Fleabag, movies like The Worst Person in the World, these works feel like women – or male creators writing women — trying to regain protagonism for a way of life that’s led to disappointment.
Of course, these women don’t have a monopoly on feeling lost and fucked up in your 20s and 30s. But there is a markedly different relationship to responsibility and entitlement on a show like Insecure or on my personal favorite The Bisexual than on a show like Girls.
Which brings us back to our dear Anaïs. Played by Anaïs Demoustier, she appears to be the quintessential representation of this archetype. She doesn’t have a job. She’s finishing a thesis on 17th century descriptions of passion — or, rather, not finishing. She’s late on rent because she didn’t want to keep living with her boyfriend even though he was her sole source of income. She has no ambitions. She begins an affair with a married man that feels almost like an afterthought. And, of course, she’s white and cis and thin and average height and doesn’t have a disability and has straight brown hair and is pretty and wears red lipstick.
She’s also incredibly charming. She’s also incredibly real. Bourgeois-Tacquet’s writing and Demoustier’s performance work together to create a grounded human being out of this basic archetype. Whenever I felt tempted to dismiss her, they pulled me back into her story.
Throughout the film, Anaïs interest in the married man pivots to a much greater interest in the man’s wife. But it’s not the film’s queerness that separates it from its subgenre — although I’m grateful for the steamy sex scene. What Anaïs in Love does differently is it lets its protagonist get away with everything.
The usual arc of these works is to follow our charming fuck-ups as they mature. It makes sense given the less desirable social nature of their characteristics. But there’s something almost radical in the way this film explores its protagonist’s values — revealing their strengths to society instead of revealing society’s strengths to her. In this way, the film is most similar to the Old Hollywood screwball comedies. It celebrates a queer woman by embracing her chaos in a world built on structure.
Anaïs says that life feels too fragile to plan ahead. Maybe it’s because her mom has cancer, but mortality seems to weigh heavily on this person always tempting fate. People often muse about living in the moment and about how any of us could die at any time, but Anaïs takes that attitude to its natural conclusion.
The film isn’t naïve about the cost of this attitude. At one point, her father says that, like him, Anaïs can charm her way out of any problem. Her brother then clarifies that he was the one who had to convince her landlord to give her a break. Following one’s own pleasure means letting the challenges of life fall onto others. Anaïs is selfish in her quest for total freedom.
And yet there’s something undeniable about her way of life. Plenty of people live selfishly in ways that don’t bring them this level of pleasure. Plenty of people go through life contributing even less than Anaïs without even feeling joy.
Of course, Anaïs can only act the way she does because of privilege. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something the rest of us can learn from her. When death is all around us and no one seems to care, it’s important that we care — it’s also important that we live. Anaïs may not be great at the caring but she’s great at the living.
It’s a more interesting — and more inspiring — portrait than the women who give it all up to become their parents. Given these limited options, chaos feels like it might just be a radical act. And, hey, even if it’s not, it sure is fun to watch.