DIRECTOR: Sébastien Lifshitz | WRITERS: Stéphane Bouquet, Sébastien Lifshitz | CAST: Stéphanie Michelini, Yasmine Belmadi, Edouard Nikitine, Josiane Stoléru, Corentin Carinos | France
Sébastien Lifshitz’s Wild Side follows Stéphanie (Stéphanie Michelini), a 30-ish Parisian pre-op transexual prostitute, as she returns to the bleak northern French countryside where she grew up in order to take care of her terminally ill mother. Through flashbacks we piece together that Stéphanie left school and her hometown 15 years before and has never looked back, but she’s now given to melancholy reflections on her past and the boy she was (her mother still calls her Pierre). She’s soon joined by her two lovers, outsiders like herself, with whom she’s created a stable — and loving — alternative family: Mikhail (Edouard Nikitine), a bisexual Russian Army deserter who is deeply troubled by his experiences in Chechnya, and Djamel (Yasmine Belmadi), a young French Arab from a grimy suburb who turns tricks in railway station toilets. Lifshitz’s depiction of this ménage à trois — Mikhail and Djamel are also involved with each other — is respectful, but cool and detached, as is the movie as a whole, and there’s a frankness to the frequent sex scenes (with johns, with each other) that is refreshingly neither lurid nor degrading: this is what these people do and we’re not asked to sit in judgment. The few sequences that might have been milked for more emotional fireworks — Mikhail wanting to hear Stéphanie speak in her male voice, Stéphanie’s unannounced visit to her schoolyard crush, now a married man with children — are underplayed to great effect, but they fail to jolt some life into the movie. Wild Side may have the laid back cool of the Lou Reed song from which it borrowed its title, but it lacks the trashy allure of Warhol’s Factory that the song celebrates; what stands out in my mind instead is Lifshitz’s controlled equanimity and Agnès Godard’s gorgeously understated and always pitch perfect cinematography.