“My Friend Victoria”: Finding Value in Uncomfortable Readings & Viewings

PART ONE

I am having difficulty thinking about the film “My Friend Victoria” and the Doris Lessing novella “Victoria and the Staveneys,” from which the film was adapted. Hours of writing, reading, pondering, and frowning and I am no closer to a clear composition of my impressions than I was a month ago when I first saw Jean Paul Civeyrac’s cinematic adaptation at the movie theater. After that, I hunted down the Doris Lessing novella which is one of four included in her collection entitled The Grandmothers.

Writing this piece has been giving me the flux! Reading Nicholas Elliott’s “Film Comment” interview with Civeyrac complicated things further. Honestly, I can’t tell if this is a blog post that

(a) just doesn’t want to be written; or

(b) is something I’ve got lost in and, somehow, can’t find my way back [from]? or

(c) is still revealing its shape and direction to me

Do the desires and hang-ups I have about portrayals of black girls and women in film prevent me from experiencing a work the way a director intends? Or is it possible that filmmakers and writers tell stories that are about people with whom they have no affinity? Or, are characters in stories mere devices used to talk about situations and things, having nothing to do with the people themselves? These are the types of questions I am asking myself now and wondering if I am only twisting myself up in knots looking for meaning where there is none.

The film first came to my attention via a photograph and description in a program guide for the Gene Siskel Film Center:

“The Doris Lessing story “Victoria and the Staveneys” is relocated from London to Paris, where the life of Victoria, a young African French woman, is altered by a brief encounter with an affluent white family. The fairytale dreams of the dazzled working-class orphan become the obsession of the beautiful but adrift adult Victoria, whose ambitions are seemingly fulfilled by bearing a child who will bond her to the family forever. In French with English subtitles.”

Not quite knowing what to expect, I wanted to see just how the affluent white family’s lifestyle “dazzles” Victoria, the working-class orphan. Would there be material opulence as well as an overall sense of joie de vivre to contrast with a life of limited options and spiritual leanness? What events and thought processes would influence Victoria’s decisions? It’s true that I was also drawn to the film because the main character, Victoria, is black and female, and I hoped to see her story unfold in a complicated, sensitive, and illuminating way.

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What I saw was a thin visual tale of a young black French schoolgirl, Victoria (played by Keylia Achie Beguie), who develops a crush on the Savinet family one day when Victoria’s aunt is unexpectedly taken to the hospital, and the Savinet’s eldest son, Edouard, is charged with collecting Victoria from school and looking after her for the evening, even though their families are not known to each other.  (How random is that?)

The father does not occupy this home and the mother—-an actor of some reputation—-is scheduled to perform in the theatre on this evening. The younger son, Thomas, is spending the night at a friend’s. I guess me coming from a different time period and culture makes it hard to wrap my head around Lessing’s assertion that Victoria can only be rescued from school by the Staveney’s (“Savinet” in the film; “Staveney” in the novella) eldest son, Edward/Edouard—-and winds up spending the night in their home. Lessing writes that he is “a tall fair boy of about twelve” whose mother leaves him in charge of a child not known to their family. In the movie theater I watched this scene tensely because their families were not known to each other and the dynamic of a little black girl alone with an older white boy made me uneasy.

The Savinet home appears spacious and warm, and the parents’ liberal attitudes are the reason why the sons attend school with children of working-class family’s such as Victoria’s. The young Victoria is awed—-I guessed this from her show of widened eyes—-by their home and gravitates toward the ease and protection of Edouard’s presence.

While the dwelling that Victoria shares with her aunt turns out to be much smaller than the Savinet’s, I didn’t necessarily assume the home to be an inferior one. However, recognizing the aunt’s chronic illness and seeing Victoria playing alone with a homemade dollhouse did succeed in transmitting to me some feelings of somberness.

Despite the lovely cinematography and moody quietude of the film, I came away with the uncomfortable yearning for Victoria (played by Guslagie Malanga) to have more depth. I felt threatened by the portrayal of this young black French woman as an aimless person who idealizes a singular encounter with an affluent white family for several years until she finally manages to have an affair with the youngest son, Thomas (Pierre Andrau). Their uninspired fling results in Victoria’s pregnancy and the birth of a daughter, Marie, but she decides she doesn’t want Thomas to know and lets him go off to university without knowing that he is going to become a father.

Victoria eventually falls in love and marries a black man, Sam (Tony Harrisson), a musician, and they have a son. One day, while walking with Marie (Maylina Diagne), Victoria recognizes Thomas and his [current black] girlfriend walking not too far up ahead. Suddenly the fact that Thomas doesn’t know he has a six year old child strikes Victoria as being wrong and she determines to tell him. When she does, he is pleased, and so is his mother who exclaims “I always wanted a black grandchild.” (Later, Thomas’s father will describe Marie as his “little creme caramel, my little chocolate eclair.”)

In Lessing’s story, Sam Bisley, the man Victoria falls in love with and marries, comes across as a cardboard figure: a stereotype of an unreliable musician interested in exploiting Victoria. Ironically, the film version of Sam shows him as a man who truly cares about Victoria and wants to provide a good home for her and Marie.

Only Thomas’ older brother Edouard is put off by this development, suspecting that Victoria is only after money. Even though Thomas believes Victoria, a paternity test is taken, after which the white family begins at once to incorporate little Marie into their family life while excluding Dickson, Marie’s brother/Victoria’s son with Sam. So you see the biracial daughter enjoying being the center of attention with her white family, enjoying treats and outings without her mother and brother.

I wonder if the audience for this film is white French people? I wasn’t comfortable with the implication that the presence of a black figure represents a problem —-and yet, that same black figure —-a person!—- isn’t shown to embody direction, personality, or a complex of emotions.

“She is nearly a stranger to herself, she doesn’t really know what she is in the universe. That comes from a combination of a version of the script that moved away from Lessing and became more melodramatic, and [Malanga] Guslagie herself, who created this character and allowed me to conceive the mise en scène.” – Civeyrac from “Film Comment”

The film “My Friend Victoria” is narrated by Fanny, the daughter of Phyllis, the social worker who takes Victoria in after her aunt dies. After reading Doris Lessing’s story “Victoria and The Staveneys” from which his film was adapted I’ve decided that director Civeyrac did the story a disservice with this device. I found Fanny to be an unsatisfactory “friend” and storyteller. To my mind Phyllis would have been the better storyteller for the earlier sections of the film because she is a black French woman whose grandparents immigrated to London (Paris in the film) after the second world war. In this way the viewer could learn a bit about some of the historical origins of many of France’s black nationals. Phyllis is a mother and a social worker. She is witness to Victoria’s care of her aunt, and, because something in Victoria reminds her of herself, I feel Civeyrac missed an opportunity to show similarities and contrasts by paralleling their two stories up to a certain point.

Or, maybe the narrator should have been someone from the Savinet family, so that all of this business about Marie’s absorption into their world might be more acutely understood by the viewer. Doris Lessing’s story is written from a third person point of view and “Fanny” is known as “Bessie” and she is studying to be a nurse, not a writer.

"Victoria and the Staveneys" is one of four novellas in this collection by Doris Lessing (photo by Leslie Reese)
“Victoria and the Staveneys” is one of four novellas in this collection by Doris Lessing (photo by Leslie Reese)

The “Film Comment” interview reveals that the director wanted Victoria to seem “mysterious” and “opaque,” floating and drifting. I sometimes think the use of the word “mysterious” is just code for dismissing the dynamic personality traits, life experiences, and personal choices that shape a person. Black characters are often seen as mysterious and magical rather than thoughtful, self-examining, and self-determining.  I objected to this, personally, but if Civeyrac was trying to say something about foreigners living in France, then to me he is also suggesting that maybe they aren’t gifting society with anything of value, they aren’t making any contribution. If Victoria is the “representation of the stranger” I wonder would it have been more meaningful to emphasize the life of the Savinet (Staveney) family and how the absorption of “the stranger” into their lives brings their attitudes about race and class and foreigners to the surface?

I wanted access to Victoria’s background and inner world. I wanted to know what happened to her mother and how she felt about having being orphaned twice. Some vagueness and mystery in a character can be intriguing, allowing the viewer or reader to be imaginative and pose questions….yet, this felt to me as if the director didn’t believe he needed to know Victoria well in order to show her story. Victoria appeared to be someone drifting along in life, taking a long line of jobs because she didn’t do well in school. I was uncomfortable with her aimlessness because of my insecurities with portrayals of black females who live unexamined and dreamless lives.

“In France, it’s clear that though we say an individual with black skin is French, there is a general subconscious that holds that the individual is not French. Meaning that we still do not accept that a black person is French. It’s theoretically accepted but not truly.”
-Civeyrac from “Film Comment”

Later on in the interview Civeyrac confesses “an ambition to show suffering and to include a critical dimension with a great deal of charm, nearly without seeming to, through beautiful sequences or amusing moments. I like that way of working.” And while I appreciate that aspiration, I don’t think he succeeded with that in “My Friend Victoria.”  Then again, I am not a black French woman, so why am I so invested in Victoria representing a figure whom I understand and can relate to?

To be continued….

See the trailer for “My Friend Victoria.”

Read Nigel Farndale’s “Doris Lessing: Her Last Telegraph Interview.”

Read Laura Demanski’s review of Doris Lessing’s The Grandmothers.

3 Comments

  1. Leslie, thanks for alerting us to all the ambiguity. The city got changed from London to Paris, and all sorts of names got changed, but not Victoria’s? If they’d been paying attention, this French-speaker thinks she’d have been Victorine. The cultural differences between the two cities (just ask anyone in either one!) are so strong that it boggles my mind that a screenwriter would think of doing it for an “adaptation.” Ugh. I think you’re right to be confused.

    1. Thank you, Naomi. I hope this post doesn’t discourage anyone from going to see the film. In fact, one time I considered titling the post “Do you See What I See?” And believe it or not, I didn’t share ALL of the spoilers – eek!

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