Cannes 2024 Review: THE BALCONETTES Paints a Portrait of Modern Ladies on Fire

Women get bloody man trouble in French comedy horror.

Contributing Writer
Cannes 2024 Review: THE BALCONETTES Paints a Portrait of Modern Ladies on Fire

Though she's better-known Stateside as an actress in Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Tár, Noémie Merlant also boasts two features as a director. Her latest, The Balconettes, written with Portrait director Céline Sciamma and premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, lets us see a messier and bloodier side. And we're here for it.

It's set during the sweltering Marseilleais summer heat, when residents are advised to stay in. They still manage to socialize, though, with their windows wide open, music blasting and titties hanging out. It's such a vibe; you can't kill it even when Denise (Nadège Beausson-Diagne) murders her abusive husband. Her neighbor can barely conceal her excitement.

We are soon introduced to the titular balconettes proper: Nicole (Sanda Codreau), the shy aspiring novelist who develops a maybe unhealthy obsession with a new neighbor across the street (Lucas Bravo); Ruby (Souheila Yacoub), a sex-cam performer who's adopted a bohemian lifestyle; and Élise (Merlant), a TV actress running away from an overbearing boyfriend (Christophe Montenez). It's an otherwise harmonious and utopian monosexual community, but men introduce violence to harsh this mellow.

Élise arrives in Marseille in a haze and crashes into a hot neighbor's car, which gives the balconettes the entrée to exchange numbers with him. He invites them over for drinks in return. Apparently, he's a photographer by profession. There are lots of ominous black-and-white portraits of nude women on his wall, which would ordinarily send up all sorts of red flags, but the balconettes are too preoccupied with his hotness. Suffice it to say the evening eventually turns disastrous.

Merlant and Sciamma again draw up some vivid characters. There are cool little details -- like Nicole eating a piece of cake with her fingers during a Zoom meeting -- that make these characters come alive. The film normalizes women being comfortable with their skin and unabashedly horny. If you and your bestie can hop on a rocking chair together and hump the arm rests for a good time, have at it.

One thing particularly noteworthy about the movie is how it shifts the tone when appropriate, which most (men-directed) horror comedies often fail to do. Instances of sexual violence and trauma are not dealt with lightly here. They don't function merely as a plot device to move the story forward. We get to witness the full extent of the devastating toll it takes on the characters. And this violence at times comes from the least expected sources. In these moments, The Balconettes plays out like a serious drama.

There are some gory moments, but the film doesn't mine that at every given opportunity. Special effects are tastefully naturalistic and not overdone. It's cringeworthy to be sure, but not an endurance contest.

When it shifts into the comedic mood though, the humor is delightfully dark. In a bid to do damage control, the balconettes take a shopping trip to the French equivalent of Home Depot. There, they inspect and compare the various saw options. Then they nonchalantly place a saw, a roll of plastic bags or sheets and a jug of what's presumably acid on the checkout counter as if that isn't totally sus.

Not to get nitpicky, but where The Balconettes misses the mark is in its treatment of a subplot involving Nicole's ability to see dead people. These apparitions are scary only to Nicole, and most definitely not to the viewers. Perhaps taking a more atmospheric J-horror approach would have maximized the fright quotient as the filmmakers perhaps intended.

Similarly, the suspense of the balconettes potentially getting caught is not fully realized. At one point they even have police officers helping them lift a trash bin containing a corpse up the stairs, and that's played mostly for laughs, as is the balconettes' screams inadvertently catching the landlord's attention, so they start moaning and faking orgasms to divert.

Overall, The Balconettes is fresh and fun. It does prioritize comedy over horror and suspense, but it also has enough thrills to guarantee a good time. To be sure, this is the kind of madcap caper flick Drive Away Dolls aspired to be or should have been. Outdoing a Coen brother in what's considered his wheelhouse is no small feat for Merlant and Sciamma.

The film enjoys its world premiere at Cannes Film Festival.

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Cannes 2024Cannes Film FestivalCéline SciammaNoémie MerlantSanda Codreau

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