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'Set Me Free'

A la Godard: 'Set Me Free' is a lovely homage to the French New Wave

Friday, July 14, 2000

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

It's 1963 Montreal. Kids still play and dance to 45s on their little plastic portable record-players. It's a time when 13-year-old Hanna discovers Nana played by Anna (Karina) in Jean-Luc Godard's "Vivre sa vie" ("My Life to Live").

'Set Me Free'

RATING: R in nature for sexual themes

STARRING: Karine Vanassse, Pascale Bussieres, Miki Manojlovic, Alexandre Merineau, Charlotte Christeler, Nancy Huston


CRITIC'S CALL: 2 1/2 stars


Quebecoise director-screenwriter Lea Pool sets out to do for Hanna what Godard did for Nana: to liberate her, in a kinder if not gentler way. "Set Me Free" ("Emporte-Moi"), like all Pool films ("A corps perdu" (1988), "La Demoiselle sauvage" (1991), "Mouvements du desir" (1993)) is characterized by physical beauty, emotional impact and the documentary flavor of her Canadian television work.

French-Canadian actress (and champion skier!) Karine Vanassse plays Hanna, tormented by her adolescence in the midst of a very unhappy family. At school, she describes her mother (Pascale Bussieres) as a "famous fashion designer," when in fact she's merely an overworked garment-factory worker, exhausted, depressed and suicidal from life with a tyrannical Jewish poet-husband (Yugoslavian star Miki Manojlovic).

He, for his part, is prone to deep frustration and violence, tromping on the sensibilities of the women he rules -- yet strangely loving, in his way, capable of giving her "The Diary of Anne Frank" to read. His kids are used to regularly pawning his typewriter for the rent money.

Brother Paul (Alexandre Merineau) is close to sister Hanna and will get even closer after she gets her first kiss from little lesbian Laura (Charlotte Christeler) at a dance. The three of them play spin the bottle and end up in bed together at Laura's house. It shocks you -- not in a prurient but a sweet way! Experimental incest and homosexual-ity have never been portrayed so innocently.

"Set Me Free" is bathed in the Montreal ambiance of high, winding apartment staircases, a shirtless boy playing the accordion, a lone bicyclist riding in shadowed circles by the weak sunlight of dawn and streetlights of night. There is a particularly beautiful scene of soft dialogue between Hanna and her mother as the mom delicately fits and adjusts the daughter's velvet dress. They will skate together, fall down together, laugh and cry together on the ground -- and soon lose each other in the mother's suicide attempt.

"Set Me Free" is structured in episodic vignettes a la Godard's "Vive sa vie," that probing 12-chapter docu-portrait of a diffident prostitute. Vanasse, with her gorgeous freckles, is a heartbreaker as she goes about trying to copy the loveless lovemaking of sensuous hooker Nana in the '63 film.

"I changed my mind," says the little girl to her first customer -- a little too late to save the day but in time to save her life.

This is a strange, lovely homage to the French New Wave and to its psychosexual formative powers.

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