Not your dad’s women’s-prison movie

French prison drama Ombline walks a fine line between melodrama and brutal realism, a tough balancing act which writer-director Stéphane Cazes mostly pulls off.

Mélanie Thierry in Ombline

Ombline, the feature debut from French director Stéphane Cazes, opens with scenes of a mom cooing the fable of Noah’s Ark to her baby as he gurgles in her arms. I immediately cringed at the high levels of saccharine, but it’s a deceptive introduction to the film that follows.

The title character (Mélanie Thierry) begins the film pregnant and starting a three-year jail sentence for stabbing a cop when her husband died during a bungled arrest. As her crime suggests, she’s prone to both anti-authoritarian attitude and violent outbursts, which serve her badly in prison. She starts her sentence in a relatively benign ward for new mothers, where she’s able to create a semblance of normalcy when her baby son is born. But as he grows, it becomes harder and harder to balance her maternal duties with the raw Darwinian tactics needed to survive in the harsh prison environment.

The resulting combination of melodrama and brutal realism also leaves writer-director Cazes with a tough balancing act on his hands, which he mostly manages to pull off. While not without its moments of cue-the-strings sentimentality, the film keeps these to an appropriate minimum and pulls them off effectively when they’re needed. Cazes keeps us guessing whether the story will tilt towards a happy ending or a feel-bad bummer all the way through (no spoilers here).

Thierry carries the film with an intense, emotionally raw performance. The supporting actors playing her various cellmates, jailhouse rivals and prison guards are all solid too; Corrine Masiero, who also stood out with her supporting performance in Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone, is particularly strong as a domineering con who thwarts Ombline’s efforts to stay well-behaved in the joint.

Audiard’s Un prophète is still such a standout in international cinema that it’s hard not to hold other French prison films up to its high standards, but perhaps that’s unfair. While it’s not going to enter any pantheon, Ombline is a totally gripping and affecting drama. ■

Ombline opens Friday, April 5

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