The Pathology of Emptiness

The Pathology of Emptiness

Siegrid Alnoy’s film debut explores a chillingly gray French corporate culture

“She’s One of Us” is a ghost story about a woman who’s still alive. Its protagonist, Christine Blanc, is aptly named—she’s a blank slate whose motivations are opaque even to the man she’s dated for two months. Director Siegrid Alnoy overturns many rules of conventional film grammar and narrative in search of a form more appropriate to Christine’s life. Alnoy’s clearest precursor is Laurent Cantet’s masterful “Time Out,” about a man who deceived his family and friends into thinking that he was employed.

Christine’s success in the workplace raises troubling questions about corporate culture. In the end, this soulless cipher may be the perfect worker. Christine (Sacha Andres) temps in a small town in France’s Rhone Alps region. While she would like a steady job, she drifts from office to office. Her friendship with Patricia (Catherine Mouchet), who works at her temp agency, is her life’s one bright spot. Christine doesn’t socialize easily.

Finding out that Patricia collects porcelain figurines of owls, Christine buys her own array of owls in order to pretend that they have something in common. Her behavior towards Patricia grows steadily weirder. One day, the two go swimming at a local pool. After an accident, Christine panics and bludgeons Patricia to death with a fire extinguisher.

Yet, above everything else, the world of “She’s One of Us” is tasteful. Its shopping mall offers large, comfortable chairs for customers to eat and lounge on. Business and nature are balanced, Alnoy frequently using shots in which a landscape is visible behind an office window. Oddly, the nature and the commercial landscape feel much the same. Both are chilly and uninviting, literally and figuratively.

From the very first, mysterious shot, in which Christine stares into the camera and then disappears from the frame, “She’s One of Us” cranks up the tension. The sound design is adventurous and unsettling. A steady electronic drone, reminiscent of experimental composer William Basinski’s work, underlines the first 20 minutes, incorporating percussion that sounds like a heartbeat. Sound effects, like Christine’s heavy breathing, become part of a collage that breaks down barriers between music and ambient noise. In one key scene, a loud burst of opera all but drowns out dialogue.

Alnoy adopts standard storytelling techniques in order to fiddle with them. Shot/counter-shot sequences end in unexpected places. Circular pans are staged to destroy the spectator’s confidence in his or her spatial understanding. The film often elides entrances and exits. Its storytelling is elliptical, cutting directly to the heart of the matter. Reflections distort the image, making the characters look all the more spectral.

“She’s One of Us” is more chilling than the likes of “American Psycho,” because it avoids over-the-top, anti-corporate satire. Unlike Patrick Bateman, Christine could be working unnoticed in the next cubicle. Nevertheless, it’s an implicitly political film. Only after murdering Patricia does Christine gain the confidence to get ahead at work. Sociopathy equals success.

On paper, this conclusion might sound blunt, but in the film, it’s more suggested than stated. What’s most powerful is the intersection of two worlds—everyday corporate life and the psyche of a woman without defining qualities. This juxtaposition brings a potent pathology to life. All through the film, Alroy’s directing decisions suggest the perspective of a character who doesn’t see the world the way the rest of us do. She deliberately avoids any larger context. Christine’s relationships are forced and artificial, as if friendship and love were merely poses to be adopted. Nor do any of her co-workers seem to be having a more rewarding career or personal life. Christine’s world is airless, and the film adopts this climate in order to examine it.

When “She’s One of Us” finally alters the mood and allows Christine a shot at redemption, its iciness hurts it. Only the barest hint of warmth is let into the film. British novelist J.G. Ballard described affect as the most terrifying casualty of the 20th century. “She’s One of Us” traces what happens to life in a world devoid of emotion, even if it is too clinical to mourn this collapse. While it might have benefited from a bit more breathing room, the film is a remarkable debut for Alnoy.