Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Ariane Labed's Olla, which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from June 1 - July 1, 2020 in MUBI's Brief Encounters series.
The number of actors who express interest in directing is probably highly disproportionate to the number of them that actually do. The actress Ariane Labed however has stepped behind the camera, all while her on-screen career motors on. (She will next be seen, whenever that may be, in Joanna Hogg’s sequel to The Souvenir.) You might describe Labed the actress as an old soul. Her face has embalmed a sort of sage-like wariness, ever since she debuted in Athina Tsangari’s Attenberg as a stunted young woman metaphorically cracking out of her shell with a literal idiosyncratic skip-step. Though she’s played in numerous parts since then, she’s perhaps most recognized for her roles in the films of Yorgos Lanthimos.
When any creative individual is up to new work, it’s a fun parlor game to theorize what the end product would look like. Those who watch Olla in anticipation of the sort of filmic sensibilities most closely associated with her onscreen personae, that is, the off-kilter Greek Weird Wave, will find themselves aggrieved and then enlightened. Labed’s directorial debut retains none of the stylistic dread and violence that marks her acting oeuvre and its subject matter takes to task how women are compelled or coerced into certain roles, a theme Labed embeds into a richly illustrated mise en scène.
In this spry short, a young woman (Romanna Lobach) arrives in France to live with a man who plucked her off the internet and out of Eastern Europe. But her happily-ever-after is quickly dashed, as she takes up residence in neither a princess’s castle nor the City of Lights, but a sterile suburb. Her prince, Pierre (Grégoire Tachnakian), is a humble-looking plebeian who embarks at once on molding her into his preferred image. Literally moments upon her arrival, he rechristens her as the more continentally-friendy “Lola” to avoid questions of her origin. Lines of communication are also stifled. Unfamiliar with French, Olla uses the translating app on her phone or sticks to the occasional oui. It’s not by accident that the first significant thing she says is an apology.
The script, which Labed also wrote, follows Olla as she reclaims her freedom and independence, a path marked by expected and eccentric beats, most hilariously a scene where Olla dances louchely and sexily to a version of Haddaway’s “What is Love.” Otherwise it is the film’s exaggerated reality, accentuated by wide shots, that enhance the narrative and edge it into the realm of fairytale. In the first scene, Olla emerges from the fog when she arrives in town; there is a herd of catcallers, which insults her in melodic unison, like a Greek chorus; Pierre’s house is decorated by someone with a disturbing fixation on burnt-orange. Nearly everything is tomato-hued, from the walls and tiles to the tablecloth and a strong accent pillow. The color palette, its extreme sunburnt warmth, has a vintage luster that bends the film towards the fabulous. With her lustrous red hair, Olla could blend right into the background, which is exactly what Pierre wants. His apparent preference for red, a color that supposedly conveys and stokes desire, happens to be to Oedipal, too—if you assume, like I do, that the house he lives in and its aesthetic choices actually belong to his aging mother. The elderly woman (Jenny Bellay), not-quite with it, later plays a part in the film’s most supremely well-earned finale.
Until then, Olla triangulates between household chores, walking out to buy groceries, and fending off Pierre’s advances. He chases her around the house as a means of flirtatious seduction, but when Olla erupts with steady giggles, it’s apparent that the source of her laughter is not at all tied to any pleasure, but the absurdity of the situation. It soon curdles into an unacknowledged shriek.
Despite Pierre’s estimation, Olla is not an amorphous dormouse, a fact that’s visually substantiated as she hulks over him in her black stiletto booties. Indeed, Labed uses costuming and Olla’s statement wardrobe to telegraph the character’s individuality. She arrives in a periwinkle puffer coat, like a cloud. Later she wears a red leather nursemaid uniform layered over a sheer black long-sleeve shirt, the top of her bra peeking through. The final outfit: a snakeskin-print minidress with a mock neck, which she triumphantly reveals when she throws off her housecoat and upends the story. These clothes relay power. But the signs were there all along, if only someone had noticed.