Imagine Into the Wild as a date movie, and you'll start to get an idea of what Looking for Cheyenne is about. A French import from director Valerie Minetto, this charming comedy centers on two women whose lives and personalities are as different as they could possibly be, but that hasn't stopped them falling in love with each other. Sonia (Aurelia Petit) is as much of a straight-arrow as possible, teaching high-school science to a bunch of disinterested kids and living in a modest apartment. Cheyenne (Mila Dekker) is a journalist whose world has recently collapsed. She has been completely unable to find work and has lost everything -- her apartment, her ability to sustain herself, the whole nine. In a fit of pique and rage, she has turned her misfortune into a lifestyle choice and abandoned society, determining to live off the land and get completely back to nature. It's that decision, and how it affects Sonia and her chances to find some measure of love and happiness, that provides the engine for Looking for Cheyenne.
The film seems to understand from the outset that the best possible outcome for Sonia and Cheyenne would be a short-term patch-up -- how could two people so different ever make it work in the long run? With that in mind, several possible replacements are lined up for Sonia, including an older, more hardened lesbian pick-up artist played by Guilaine Londez and even a male, Pierre (Malik Zidi) who explains that he doesn't mind that Sonia is a lesbian -- he'd still like to take her out. (Who knew that line could work?) Sonia is open to the possibility of moving on in theory, but as the film's title suggests, there's something about Cheyenne that strikes her as irreplaceable and she can't seem to get on with her life. Most importantly, there's a guilt factor involved. In one of the film's best scenes, Sonia candidly admits that she saw Cheyenne's problems building and did nothing to help her crawl out of the hole she was falling into. "My love is useless," she exclaims with real sadness.
The primary stylistic device that director Minetto uses in Looking for Cheyenne is having characters appear as hallucinations and dream-images of each other, so that they can converse throughout the film, and push the narrative forward quickly. For example, in the aftermath of a bedroom encounter between Sonia and Londez's character, while Sonia is quietly sleeping on her side of the bed, Pierre suddenly appears and confronts Londez with the fact that the sleeping Sonia is actually dreaming about him at that moment, not her. They get into a little verbal sparring over that. While this device allows for a clever way to compact a lot of dialogue and drama into a smaller amount of screen-time, there's something about it that also feels a little too cutesy and, forgive me, too French for it to have a lot of dramatic resonance. We already understand without the device that every character is existing in the headspace of the other character, so it's a little unnecessary for the director to keep driving home that point.
The film also eventually develops into too much of an explicit socialist rant, divorced from the narrative -- characters address the camera directly and spill out their grievances against the priorities of the capitalist society they live in. Minetto clearly has a lot of theory about France and its governing system she wants to impart and the overarching idea that gets delivered to the audience is something like this: our society itself is not structured in such a way as to nourish relationships between people -- hardly new news. It would have served the film to have those points scored through successful drama instead of simply putting it up there like a placard at various intervals throughout the film. Although, that said, I have to admit that my favorite character in the film is the one played by Laurence Cote, who advocates the live-off-the-land philosophy Cheyenne now believes in. Or claims to believe in, anyway -- the film teases us with the idea that Cheyenne is simply doing the adult equivalent of pouting, and might be brought back to reality.
In many ways, Looking for Cheyenne is reminiscent of the HBO film Gia -- a tragic lesbian love story that succeeded because the performances were so grounded in reality. As Sonia, Aurelia Petit adopts a completely naturalistic pose from start to finish and never seems to be grasping to find her character. Cheyenne is a more tricky role, and Mila Dekker doesn't get as many opportunities to shine. She's presented as more of the object of Sonia's indecipherable obsession -- even she doesn't know why she fell in love with this social oddball, much less how she might find a way to fall out of love. Looking for Cheyenne caps a semi-decent year for French film that began with one of my favorites of the year, The Page Turner. Let's hope 2008 will be better.