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Je M’appelle Hmm… | 2013 Venice Film Festival Review

Name Dropper: Conflicting Techniques Clutter Agnes B.’s Debut

French fashion designer and film producer Agnes Trouble makes her directorial and screenwriting debut under the pseudonym Agnes B. with Je M’appelle Hmm…, a hodge podge of jarring techniques that distorts an otherwise difficult narrative hinged upon such taboo subject matter as incestuous pedophilia. A debut born from a creative mind outside of the cinematic medium, it shares many shortcomings and other similarities with the 2011 debut of Eva Ionesco, My Little Princess. While that film’s subpar elements hide neatly behind the blonde frizzied monstrous feminine of Isabelle Huppert, Agnes B. has no such forgiving beacon, truncating narrative growth at every turn.

Celine (Lou-Lelia Demerliac) is an 11 year-old with a rather troubling secret, one she can only discuss while alone with her disheveled Barbie doll. While mom (Sylvie Testud) wastes away her time as a waitress, out of work dad (Jacques Bonnaffe) sexually molests his eldest child, while two younger siblings remain unawares. Mom and grandma (Marie-Christine Barrault) both notice a marked difference in Celine’s behavior, but a school field trip allows Celine an opportunity to duck away and hide in an unlocked truck, which belongs to a lonely British driver named Peter (Douglas Gordon).

While Peter doesn’t know much French and Celine doesn’t know much English, we ascertain that Peter used to have a wife and child that died, which seems to explain his fatherly stance towards the mysterious young girl who says her name is Hmm. Eventually, Celine manages to reveal that her father has been “bothering” her in that way, which explains why Peter simply ignores all the missing ads that pop up everywhere about Celine as they jaunt through the countryside. Eventually, however, reality catches up with them, and Peter is found in a compromising situation.

Like many films dealing with similar subject matter, the perverse set-up of Je M’appelle Hmm… is both arresting and sinister even as it remains hopelessly familiar. The presence of art house heavies like Testud and Barrault at first lend the material much needed credibility, though this disappears completely when the film switches gears and becomes an oddly misshapen road movie. While the film certainly isn’t enhanced by the monotonously tepid performance from Demerliac, who knows what the hell Agnes B. was thinking as she cobbled her scenes together, as Hmm… is chock full of distracting techniques, such as a random black and white sequence, white cursive scrawls that seem to be announcing elements of import (but never do) and snippets of Celine’s parents and grandmother played over a scratchy television monitor that may or may not be meant to play like a memory or fantasy in someone’s head.

Confusing and illogical interactions abound, such as a conversation with a road stop waitress who tells Peter her “greatest dream has always been to go into a truck like yours.” At an obnoxious height, a phrase questions whether we are crying or not and white faced Butoh dances appear out of nowhere in the woods. Hmm… feels like a bunch of ‘neat’ techniques used randomly and to ill effect, as if Agnes B. thought her film should look like a music video. The result, including a rather nonsensical finale and convenient monologue of omniscient narration, is a sordid mess, and worse, clocks in at two hours without giving us any characterization or realistic element of interest.

Reviewed on August 31 at the 2013 Venice Film Festival Screen Room

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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