I should have thought that FOXFIRE: CONFESSIONS OF A GIRL GANG, director Laurent Cantet’s first full-length film since winning the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 2008 for ENTRE LES MURS (better known as THE CLASS) would open with a bit more fanfare than it did in France last January. Cantet has made a series of interesting movies about opting out, from L’EMPLOI DU TEMPS (TIME OUT) in 2001 in which a hero pretends to go to work after losing his job, to HEADING SOUTH (2006) about a tourist (Charlotte Rampling) who travels to Haiti for sex. In all respects, he is ahead of the curve. At the same time, he is chronically unfashionable. He is, when the prejudice against his choice of subject fades away, a genuinely feminist director. FOXFIRE is, as writers in ‘Sight and Sound’ would say, a profoundly feminist text. It is also – and this is the biggest surprise and the reason for its low-key opening in France last January – a remake of a 1986 movie released by Rysher Entertainment. (Not that I have either seen or heard of it.)
Adapted from the novel by Joyce Carol Oates by Cantet and his regular collaborator Robin Campillo, FOXFIRE is set in upstate New York in the early 1950s (16 March 1955 is the starting point) and tells the story of two (very young) teenage girls, Legs Sadovsky (Raven Adamson) and Maddy Wirtz (Katie Coseni) and a bond of sisterhood that encompasses many others. When Maddy opens her window for Legs, otherwise known as Margaret, and lets her stay the night in her room, the act of kindness inspires Legs to form a secret society. ‘That’s what girls should do. When one is in trouble, the others should take her in.’ Boys in their school are the Viscounts; girls become Foxfire. Initiation rituals only follow after the first two acts of revenge. A teacher humiliates a girl, Rita (Madeleine Bisson) in class for being unable to solve an algebra problem. Legs and Maddy don’t know it but Rita was also sexually assaulted when hanging around her younger brother’s friends. Foxfire decides to humiliate the teacher, Mr Buttinger (Ian Matthews). He gets disdainful stares as he drives home from other motorists as well as pedestrians until he discovers what is written on the passenger side of his car. In the second act, Maddy is threatened sexually by her uncle after she expresses interest in a typewriter being thrown out. The uncle offers to sell it to her for five dollars and then ups the price to eight. But what he really wants is her. On the second attempt of trying to assault her, Maddy’s friends surprise and surround him. Maddy buys the typewriter and starts documenting the gang’s story.
Much of ‘Foxfire Revenge’ consists of painting the town red, pointing out anything that demeans women (shop windows, for example). They attack a pet store as if it were a metaphor for how women are treated. Legs devises an initiation ceremony that involves each of the girls getting a red tattoo (of a pair of flames, naturally) on their back. Legs’ inspiration is an old man in the park, Father Teriault (Gary Reineke) who saw God in the prospect of workers’ revolution in the early part of the century. ‘You’ll never know how hopeful we were back then,’ he reminisces, misty-eyed. Like many of the cast, Reineke does not appear to be a professional actor, rather someone whose authenticity shines through.
Although set in America, the dialogue has the unmistakable upward tang of English Canadian (Reineke speaks as if dubbed). This works in the film’s favour since we are never reminded of contemporary America or think of the actors as the next Lindsay Lohan. Raven Adamson even reminds one of actresses of the era; I could not shake her resemblance to Kathleen Byron in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s BLACK NARCISSUS (1947).
The gang attracts ever more members from girls who don’t want to be subservient to boys. However, after the Viscounts recognise the girls as Foxfire during a night out, trouble brews. One of them is jostled by a group of boys at the school gate. Legs pulls out a knife. The girls are instantly expelled. They run away. Legs steals a car and they are chased by police until there is a terrible car crash (a real one, not one with fake movie explosions). Whilst the others are put on suspension and become chambermaids in a hotel, Legs is given an indeterminate sentence of at least five months in a juvenile home. The girls are forbidden from seeing her.
What happens next takes the story in a slightly different direction. It involves Legs making friends with a girl from a wealthy family (Legs lies about her father being dead). Legs is released and tries to get one of her friends, an African-American girl, admitted into Foxfire (the majority refuses). The group then buys its own car and rents a house, aided by the girlfriend of Legs’ father. It requires upkeep and the girls resort to ever more desperate ways to make money which drives Foxfire to both its apotheosis and crunch point.
Cantet’s direction is even. He does not go for high drama. FOXFIRE is not a film with ‘flair’ moments, overly eloquent declamations and high-comic set pieces. What it is about is the revolutionary spirit that emerges from inequality and abuse of power. Its sense of period is strong. You do feel you are in another world, though it is surprising that no one ever talks about the war (World War Two), the nuclear bomb or the Holocaust. The girls inhabit a world that insulates them from certain horrors as American society remakes itself. The established world order, represented by Mr Kellogg (Rich Roberts), whom Legs and another Foxfire girl Violet (Rachel Nyhuus) meet through his daughter, is disdainful about ‘whiners and complainers’ and ‘employees who want to get paid for being sick’. The film does develop into a literal balance of wills between revolutionaries – albeit imperfect ones – and patriarchy in its most self-serving form.
At its heart, FOXFIRE: CONFESSIONS OF A GIRL GANG is a film against the grain. Since the 1980s, feminist revolution has been discredited and marginalised; it is likely that this film will go the same way, hence it’s low-key release; I have no idea whether it will be released in America. Yet it is an absorbing and rewarding one with a glimmer of hope. If you cannot achieve revolution in America, there are other battles you might win.
Reviewed at Soho Screening Rooms, D’Arblay Street, London, Tuesday 30 July 2013 (also seen at UGC Cine Cite Les Halles, Central Paris, Saturday 19 January 2013)