Noémie dit oui

Montreal’s Grand Prix is the backdrop in the shocking teen drama Noémie dit oui

Actress Kelly Dépault gives an astonishing lead performance as a broken runaway in Geneviève Albert’s feature debut.

There are two ways of translating Geneviève Albert’s feature debut, Noémie dit oui, from French to English. On the one hand, the title refers to a scene where the 15-year-old runaway Noémie (Kelly Dépault) agrees to work as an escort over Montreal’s Grand Prix weekend. When the idea is first proposed, she shuts it down but slowly comes around to it due to subtle coercive pressures. In this scenario, the title can be translated as “Noémie says yes,” referring to a pivotal and life-changing decision for the teen.

The title’s second translation can be more of a command: “Noémie say yes.” It extrapolates from Noémie’s life all the hardships and small pressures that drive her to agree to something she fundamentally does not want to do. Though presented as a choice, in a broken society, the choice narrows to the edge of a blade; she can still say no, but that would mean losing her new home and her new love. It would mean being cast out further into the shadows, completely and totally alone once again. 

As the film opens, Noémie lives in a group home. She hopes to reunite with her mother but this dream quickly falls apart as Noémie’s mother decides against bringing her daughter home, condemning her to live out the rest of her teens under the state’s care. Soon thereafter, Noémie runs away and goes to live with another runaway who she soon learns has been working as an escort. As things go increasingly wrong for Noémie, she latches on to her new boyfriend Zach (James-Edward Métayer), who quietly pushes her into doing sex work. 

With shades of Chantal Akerman’s repetition and use of liminal space, much of the film’s third act unfolds in a rented hotel room. A spectral Noémie engages in various sex acts with Johns as the F1 race blares in the background on TV. Mundane but rigorous in its composition, Noémie’s passive engagement goes largely unnoticed by the men who treat and use her body as just another product they’ve paid for and can use as they like.

A number tally counts as Noémie meets over two dozen men over the weekend. Avoiding oversexualized or exploitative audiovisual tropes, Noé and her clients are never framed in the same shot during the act. What we see occasionally emphasizes the grotesque, hulking male bodies pounding and convulsing, but more often underlines Noémie’s disassociation. We see the corners of bodies, the frames of a TV screen, and the edge of a bedsheet. It’s a unique and rigorous approach that captures a deepening sense of alienation. 

The physicality of Kelly Dépault’s performance can’t be overstated. Far beyond the film’s intimate scenes, she’s a force akin to Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under Influence. Her emotions feel larger than her small frame can bear. It’s as if the energy boiling inside of her can’t be contained, and she lashes out in intense and destructive physical ways. 

Noémie dit oui

Though described as an anti-prostitution screed, the film works far more effectively to examine social excesses and how the most vulnerable members suffer the greatest brunt of the practices and ideologies of a system where everyone and everything has a price. Noémie suffers at the hands of systems that exploit youth and beauty and falls through the cracks despite the good intentions of her caretakers at the group home. 

The backdrop of the Grand Prix portrayed through the screech of cars on TV and the littered corridor of Crescent Street after dark makes for an excessive symbol of a broken society. While governments and police insist on cracking down on prostitution during the event, the material excesses inherent to the Grand Prix seem inseparable from the conditions that will inevitably lead to exploitation and abuse. While ostensibly just a sporting event, it’s specifically an event that caters to the 1%, transforming the city into a larger-than-life playground where the rules don’t apply. Within the film, it becomes a grand symbol of a more extensive system of inequality.

On paper, Noémie dit oui might seem run of the mill, another story about a runaway teen “gone bad,” but on screen, it’s something else. It takes risks, it goes big and it subverts expectations. The effect is something riotous and aggressive, not without its flaws but whose imperfections speak to a vision that extends far beyond the screen. 

It’s a mistake to approach this film as merely a social message movie because it’s far more than that. It’s a parable for free will and a devastating examination of social decay. Though Noémie says yes, the film deconstructs how her answers are coerced, at least because she’s a minor, but more integrally because the system does not allow for rebellion or autonomy. Our bodies serve an economic system that does not benefit us but serves to enrich the already rich and powerful. ■

Noémie dit oui, directed by Geneviève Albert

Noémie dit oui is in Montreal theatres now.

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