By Douglas Gosse (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)
Les yeux jaunes des crocodiles – Problematizes Being a Working Woman in the 21st Century
As a bilingual Canadian, I was pleased to watch Les yeux jaunes des crocodiles/The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles (D: Cécile Telerman, 2014; France; 122 min.), which won the 3rd place Audience Award at the Scottsdale International Film Festival 2015. The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles recounts the story of two sisters who could not be more unalike. Joséphine (aka “Jo”, played by Julie Depardieu) is a researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris, France, with a doctorate in medieval history. Jo is middle-aged, separated from her husband, the black sheep in her otherwise wealthy, entrepreneurial family, and frumpy in comparison to her elegant sister, Iris (played by Emmanuelle Béart). After a dinner during which Iris falsely brags about writing a novel, Iris persuades Jo to ghostwrite the novel, so that Iris may experience the fame and glory, while Jo retains the riches. With the menagerie of Jo’s family complimenting this main conflict, critics have been amiss in not recognizing the thematic worth of the film. The film subtlety explores realities of women in the 21st century who break from reductionist gender stereotypes, in a way that strengthens the characters understanding of themselves and the world around them, and by proxy, that of us, the viewers.
Since the 1990s, there have been a slew of television shows and movies from mainly female perspectives. Thelma & Louise (1991) and I shot Andy Warhol (1996) display an extreme type of feminism where oppressed female characters resort to violence to challenge the patriarchy. In television series, female characters with professional careers, e.g., lawyers, journalists, and doctors, break from the violence motif, while battling sexism in the workplace. However, in a number of these television series, female characters are paradoxically obsessed with clothes, shopping, luncheons, appearances, and especially their love lives, thereby reinstating longstanding reductionist stereotypes of women. Ally McBeal (1997-2002), Sex in the City (1998-2004), and more recently, The Mindy Project (2012-), all reflect this problematic model. However, some more recent shows, such as Silk (2011-2014), starring Maxine Peake, and Scandal (2012-), starring Olivia Pope, reveal more sophisticated storylines that illustrate women’s ethical and interpersonal daily conflicts, without the misogynist hoopla on looks and dating. In other words, in popular culture, there has been a trend towards a more realistic and nuanced portrayal of modern working women that The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles encapsulates.
There is a meta-narrative of Cinderella in the film, which no doubt contributed to the success of the novel by the same name, upon which the film is inspired. The novel, Les yeux jaunes des crocodiles (2006) by Katherine Pancol (whose daughter Charlotte de Champfleury co-wrote the screenplay with director Cécile Telerman), sold about two million copies, and was translated into multiple languages. In the film adaptation, like Cinderella, Jo is portrayed as the virtuous, somewhat naïve sister waiting for her moment to be validated, while Iris and their mother, Henriette, bring to mind the fairy tale wicked step-sister and step-mother, who pay Jo little respect. The film opens with two little girls playing a game of “The queen and her slave” on the beach. Iris is the queen who coerces the plainer Jo to be her slave, and subsequently proceeds to boss her around. Their father arrives to take their picture. Jo turns her back, perhaps in shame, while the pretty, blonde Iris primps and preens for the camera. This is to be the template for their ensuing lives, suggesting that Cinderella/Jo will one day be transformed, and that inner beauty and strength will triumph over the seductive power of physical beauty and charm, an alluring message for many modern working women. In the film, a clear binary is set between the sisters—with goodness, humility, and work ethic as Jo’s chief characteristics, while Iris is the polar opposite—conniving, vain, languorous, and manipulative.
Although there appears to be a genuine bond between them, the sisters could not be more different. But is this the bond of born of master/slave dynamics? Iris reads Vogue and is a woman of leisure, financially supported by her rich husband, Philippe. Jo reads postmodern author Kate Atkinson and is a researcher at the prestigious French National Centre for Scientific Research, while on the side, translating into English legal documents and a biography of Audrey Hepburn. Iris wears stiletto heels and chic designer clothes, to maximize her looks. Her blonde hair is expertly coiffed. Jo dresses in drab, layered clothing to hide her thin body, wears grey wool socks in her kitchen, or low flats when she goes out. Jo’s hair is messy. Iris’ husband is a successful lawyer while Jo’s is unemployed. Iris’ husband is faithful while Jo’s husband leaves her for another woman. Iris ignores her dutiful son who futilely seeks her attention and approval while Jo is attentive and loving towards her children, including her vain, impetuous teenage daughter, who is a mirror image of her aunt.
We learn that this is not the first time that Iris plotted to take credit for others’ work. She tried a similar trick in her youth, while studying film in New York City. Iris had co-written a screenplay that she attempted to pass off as her own to producers, resulting in nasty legal action. This is how she met Philippe (played by Patrick Bruel), her knight in shining armour, who became her lawyer, and then her husband. Once the novel, Une si humble reine/Such a humble queen, ghostwritten by Jo, becomes an overnight bestseller, the lifelong conflict between sisters comes to a head. With Iris luxuriating in the spotlight and receiving all the credit, Jo remains in the shadows. Iris’s husband, Philippe, finally decides to leave his narcissistic wife and move to London, England, with their son. Philippe confronts Iris’ sociopathy—her self-involvement, manipulation and exploitation of others, and her naked vanity. Philippe matter-of-factly says to Iris, “You pretended. In fact, you always pretend. For everything, all the time.” Iris subtly nods, perhaps realizing all the time that she would eventually have to pay for her fifteen minutes of fame and glory.
Jo’s teenage daughter, Hortense (expertly played by Alice Isaaz), having gleaned the secret of the novel’s true authorship from her younger sister, Zoé, takes it upon herself to surreptitiously broadcast the revelation on the news. Hortense publicly confesses, “I’m doing this because my mother is raising my sister and me alone. She gains a meagre living even though she works like slave, and is very educated. I want her to get the copyright back. I want my mother to be recognized for her work and talent, especially since she wrote that book, and no one else” [My own translation which I feel better captures the sense of Hortense’s words]. Iris happens to be watching the news broadcast at home, her face showing subtle recognition of this inevitable development, and even approval, indicated by a fleeting smile.
Iris is her mother’s daughter, for Henriette herself is portrayed as a greedy, demanding, and arrogant wife to Marcel (the step-father of Jo and Iris, a successful businessman), and a dismissive mother towards Jo. In the end, Jo has forged her own life, success, and sense of fulfillment, as an independent working woman and mother, unlike her sister and mother, who have relied on marriage to secure a wealthy husband and social position. Beauty, image, and wealth, the obsessions of Henriette, Iris, and Hortense, are trumped by Jo’s qualities—humility, intellect, industry, and integrity.
Overall rating (4.2/5): The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles illuminates the human condition and punches holes in ideological feminist notions of patriarchy, where men are typically viewed as “evil” and “opportunistic”, and women, their binary opposite, are seen as “good” and “victims of male oppressors”. Like Philippe and Marcel, Jo is an independent, hard-working, professional person who forges her own path, and provides for her family. Henriette, Iris, and Hortense are narcissistic characters who embody a tenet of capitalism that justifies succeeding at any cost to maintain your class and privilege, no matter whom you hurt in the process, and whatever your sex or gender. Both women and men can be narcissistic in the workplace and family spheres, and complicit in maintaining the capitalist status quo, which favours white, attractive, and aggressive upper-class people. In The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles, Jo, a working woman, triumphs with her intelligence, work ethic, and integrity, showing potential for modern working women to envision the same.
There are some minor issues with The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles. While the English sub-titles capture the gist of the dialogue, in my bilingual view, some could be better translated. For instance, with a doctorate in history, Jo is specialized in “le status de la femme marchande du 12 siècle”, translated as “the condition of the 12th century tradeswoman”. “Marchande” is translated as “tradeswoman” rather than “merchant” or “of the merchant class.” The sentence, “Qu’est-ce que tu fais toute seule dans le noir?” is translated as, “What are you doing alone?” (“in the dark” or “sitting alone in the dark” is missing). Also, “Rapelle-moi” is erroneously translated as “Pick up” [the phone] rather than “Call me back.” Furthermore, the title of the novel appropriated by Iris is, Une Si Humble Reine, literally translated as Such A Humble Queen. Since the protagonist of this novel gives her money to the poor, a more idiomatic translation might be, The People’s Queen, much as Lady Diana was known as “the people’s princess”.
Also, regarding characterization and plot development, Jo works at the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris but it is unclear if she is part-time or full-time. With only a master’s degree in Spanish, English, and Russian, it is doubtful that she would be capable of translating technical legal documents (this is specialized work), or a biography of Audrey Hepburn. Furthermore, until Iris loans her a laptop later in the film, Jo appears to be doing her research and translations by hand rather than with a laptop, which is unbelievable.
There are indications that the film principally takes place (other than flashbacks) over a period of two to three years but this is unclear. For instance, there is a Christmas spent at a ski resort in Courcheval, and later another Christmas celebration in Courchevais, a suburb of Paris. Are these two Christmases? Prior to the first Christmas in Courcheval, Jo appears to have finished the translation of the Audrey Hepburn biography, and subsequent to the second Christmas, she has finished writing, Une Si Humble Reine. While lunching with a friend, it is revealed that several months have gone by since the novel’s publication. Also, Marcel Grobz’s mistress become pregnant and shortly thereafter, in a new scene, appears several months pregnant. However, Jo’s children, Hortense and Zoe, do not appear to age or mature, nor does their cousin, Alexandre. Other characters appear unchanged, and the seasons are hard to ascertain as most of the filming occurs indoors. If indeed the film takes place within a shorter time span of several months to a year, it is improbable that Jo could have worked full-time at the CNRS, translated legal documents for her brother-in-law, finished the translation of the biography, and written an intricate historical novel. Therefore, the time span during which the film takes place, from start to finish, could have been more clearly delineated.
In sum, for a Francophile, seeing Parisian landmarks, such as the Eiffel Tower, the “Musée d’archaelogie nationale”, and the “Domaine national de Saint-Germain-en-Laye”, is a treat but it would have been nice to see more. Much of the action takes place indoors, whether in Jo’s kitchen, a public library, Philippe’s law offices, or Iris’ apartment and spa. Overall, with convincing and nuanced performances by Julie Depardieu as Jo, Emmanuelle Beart as Iris, Patrick Bruel as Philippe, and Alice Isaaz as Hortense (and the minor characters, too), and with its powerful thematic worth, The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles is definitely worth watching.
Director: Cécile Telerman
Producer(s): Manuel Munz
Screenplay: Charlotte de Champfleury & Cécile Telerman; based on a novel by Katherine Pancol
Editor(s): Pauline Bouyer, Florian Dy Pasquier
Executive Producer(s): Eric Vidart-Loeb
Sound: Jean Minondo, Arnaud Rolland
Cinematographer(s): Pascal Ridao, Colin Houban
Composer: Frédéric Aliotti
Sub-titling: Titra Film
Actors: Julie Depardieu, Emmanuelle Béart, Patrick Bruel, Alice Isaaz, Jacques Weber, Samuel Le Bihan