Like HIGH NOON, this film is largely set in real time, as it follows a day in the life of the young woman of the condescending title. Unlike the classic Western, there is no action melodrama, no compression of crises or events, no heroes or villains, no tension. This is not to say it's not an unusual day - the heroine informs her boyfriend of their accidental pregnancy, begins a new job and decides to change her life.
The film starts in a cafe, as Valerie tells her unemployed boyfriend Remi that she is pregnant. He is a selfish, shiftless idler, and his reaction is predictably self-centred. She goes to the hotel where she is starting work, attracting jealous hostility from one fellow waitress, lecherous advances from a waiter, and fending off friendly gestures from another colleague.
During the course of the morning, she serves an irritable Italian couple, a pleasant French businessman alienated from his daughter, and a neurotic wife who demands eggs for breakfast, and is found making love to her husband when Valerie returns. Exasperated, Valerie returns to the cafe, and the ever-indolent Remi. After his cowardly intimations of abandoning responsibility, she storms out, nearly getting run over except for Remi's quick reflexes. The shock seems to force her into action.
There isn't a single scene that does not feature Virginie Ledoyen, an actress whose talent was leodimmed in THE BEACH, but is highly regarded in France. This emphasis might please some of the actress's male admirers, but the problem with real-time is that the boring (or 'phatic' as intellectuals like to call them) bits cut out of most films are left in, all in the name of realism. And so we follow Valerie endlessly, walking down the street, walking up stairs, walking down corridors, riding in lifts, generally being surly. Ledoyen is not required to show much emotion - who does in every day life? - and so this interminable realism risks becoming monotonous.
LA FILLE SEULE is, therefore, a melodrama in the 1950s Hollywood sense, following as it does a heroine of limited options in her hermetic environment, where her personality and possibilities are restricted to her surroundings. The more Valerie walks down the same corridor, the more we feel she is caught in a labyrinth, and there are times when the decor seems to overwhelm her, as she is caught in long shot as just another feature of the frame.
However, in the great Hollywood melodramas of Sirk et al, the monotony and repetition finally turned in on the film, and the repressions rose to crisis point, bursting the scene in physical and emotional trauma. Jacquot refuses to exploit his material's potential for melodrama - any life-changing decision is elided, the film is determinedly open-ended - so while his film is 'objectively' authentic, it doesn't feel true - this girl is so alone, she is separate even from us.
Valerie's lonely plight is contrasted with that of the other characters, as Jacquot creates a patchwork of alienation, as well as offering his heroine pessimistic insights into relationships, gender (Valerie is determined her child will be a boy, such are the options open to women) and parenthood. Crucial here is the scene where Valerie signs her contract. She left her last job when a cook tried it on, and her female employer, Sabine's snide interrogations accuse her of using her striking looks to attract clients for 'tips'. Valerie is outraged, but a phonecall for Sabine from her vacillating lover shows how vulnerable she really is, and that the title has more general implications (see also Valerie's mother).
Many critics have compared the film to those of the New Wave, presumably because of the open-air filming and young heroine. The opening sequence with the pinball machine and cafe, the day-in-the-life narrative, and Valerie's short hair at the end all echo Godard's VIVRE SA VIE, but the film bares little real relation to that pioneering French movement. There is none of the breezy freshness of the original films, none of their engaging untidiness, romantic verve, personal poetry or wide-eyed wonder at the medium, never mind the rigorous critique of a Godard film like VIVRE SA VIE.
Passers-by might smile into the camera, but its movements are deliberate and elegant, making the film's 'realism' seem very contrived. This wouldn't be a problem if the film had used artifice to recreate the heroine's inner life - instead all we have is a big modern hotel, a bit of talk, unyielding characters, and lots, oh lots, of corridors.