It’s hard to remember the last time a director prominently displayed their own vagina onscreen. Statistically speaking, most of them wouldn’t be able to do it if they tried. But Noémie Merlant has never shied away from an opportunity to redefine how female bodies are depicted on film, and “The Portrait of a Lady on Fire” star’s recent pivot behind the camera has only emboldened her efforts to reject the male gaze by inviting her characters to reclaim its oppressive hyper-sexualization on their own terms. 

Needless to say, she’s happy to lead by example in her poisoned but delicious midnight snack of a second feature. Playing Élise, a C-list starlet who’s recently been cast as Marilyn Monroe in a TV movie (only to steal her boyfriend’s car and flee the set in a panic), Merlant crashes into “The Balconettes” dolled up to look like a cheap synonym for male desire. It’s a costume that Élise will strip away over the course of the physically uninhibited and formally unbound rape-revenge horror-comedy that follows, until — at her lowest moment — the actress’ pursuit of an abortion leads her to the world’s most apathetic gynecologist, who instructs Élise to place her feet in the stirrups and point her body towards the audience as she waits and waits and waits to be examined. 

We expect Merlant to cut to a close-up of her character’s face, but she never does. The longer she holds on that clinical wide shot of the doctor’s office, the less you’re able to look anywhere besides the exposed folds of flesh between her legs. There’s nothing remotely sexual about it. Aside from the assault that leaves Élise with a pregnancy to terminate (captured in a disturbingly choreographed long-take that spans from cuddly affection to unambiguous rape), this might be the least erotic moment in Merlant’s primal scream of a movie, a messy and boisterous romp that otherwise exalts in the female body from its very first shot … which may or may not end with a middle-aged woman receiving a tickle of pleasure as she suffocates her awful husband to death by sitting on his face. “A woman’s mystique is not a choice,” someone sighs. “It’s a punishment.” By putting herself on such naked display for the doctor and the camera alike, Élise forcibly dispels herself of that mystique, freeing the character to redefine her image from the ground up over the rest of the film.

And she isn’t the only one. In a wantonly unsubtle movie teeming with lots of “bad men” and zero “good ones,” it stands to reason that the worst of them all would be a portrait photographer with a nasty habit of preying upon the beautiful models he looks at through the lens of his camera. Unfortunately for Élise and her two roommates, they don’t know what kind of movie they’re in until it’s already too late to get out of it. You might not either, as the first act of “The Balconettes” — which Merlant co-wrote with Céline Sciamma — prepares you for an Almodóvar-florid sex farce as the camera flies around the courtyard of a suburban French apartment complex at the height of a blistering “heat dome” before landing on the balcony of the apartment next to Élise’s apartment. 

But don’t get me wrong: This film is an Almodóvar-florid sex farce, as you might glean from its manic energy and sweltering pastel colors, but it’s also 100 different things on top of that. Most of its exuberance stems from Élise’s roommate Ruby (Souhelia Yacoub), a free-spirited cam girl with stickers on her face who enjoys making love to the other members of her throuple whenever she isn’t projectile squirting for the fans on her livestream. Ruby performs for their pleasure, sure, but she does so at her own discretion, and never even replies to the men barking orders at her in the comments. 

In so many ways, Ruby is the polar opposite of the third roommate Nicole (Sandra Codreanu), a shy and submissive writer who lets her novel get noted to death by a coven of advisors over Zoom and lusts from afar at the hunky neighbor whose photography studio she can see into from her balcony. Ruby naturally takes matters into her own hands, inviting the girls over to the guy’s place for what she hopes will be a sweaty night of drunken flirtation. What actually happens is initially unclear but obviously much less innocent, as a shaken Ruby arrives home the next morning covered in her newly deceased neighbor’s blood. That’s when Merlant’s playful satire begins to complicate its broad humor with more serious notes of sexual violence. 

Complicate, but not replace. For all of the gravity that Merlant reserves for her film’s treatment of rape, “The Balconettes” refuses to become a po-faced #MeToo drama that defines its characters by the same kind of threats they exist to defy. On the contrary, it leans into the tonal chaos of life on earth, creating an impressively layered genre mishmash that reflects the complex reality of how women are seen in the world, and how they see themselves in return. 

Every sober moment is answered in kind by another that’s equally delirious in nature. Personal trauma gives way to the stuff of a panicked thriller as the three roommates try to dispose of the photographer’s body (a process that frequently slips towards some classic slapstick of the “we have to hide our dead neighbor’s dismembered penis in the refrigerator” variety), while notes of supernatural horror eventually tee up some paranormal hijinx that find Nicole trying to exorcize an entire crowd of long-dead men (#NotAllGhosts). 

Some of these modalities prove more successful than others, and “The Balconettes” almost completely loses its footing with the ghost stuff, but even Merlant’s clumsiest swings help to serve the high-wire kookiness of her greater design. Like Nicole, Merlant bristles against narrative strictures and other oppressive norms, and her eagerness to shake loose from them is more important to the movie’s ethos — and its basic sense of fun — than her success in doing so. The flamboyant but nuanced performances she inspires from both herself and her co-stars have a way of reflecting that same lust for freedom, and the ever-deepening sense of sisterhood that binds the roommates together is textured enough for the rest of “The Balconettes” to indulge in the obviousness that surrounds them. 

Besides, subtlety would run counter to everything Merlant is trying to achieve in this fed-up response to all the ways in which women can be rendered invisible. The balconettes’ dead photographer friend might claim that he “tries to capture the truth of a woman,” but that’s just the line he trots out before he puts a bag over his models’ heads in order to frame their bodies for his pleasure. Here, in a movie that never runs out of surprises or lets convention get in the way of following its own bliss, Merlant rips that bag off and suffocates him with it. That’s her truth as a woman, and she shows it to us so clearly that we don’t have the slightest doubt of what we’re looking at. 

Grade: B+

“The Balconettes” premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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