The Balconettes

Karlovy Vary Film Festival: The Balconettes Review

Blood, breasts and satire: feminist horror The Balconettes at Karlovy Vary

It is fascinating how many directors, both in festival films and in popular cinema, use the horror genre to discuss the female experience. At least three films at the 2024 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival explore such stories through the uncomfortable lens of gore and terror. French director Coralie Fargeat, in her film The Substance, shows how the bloodthirsty beauty industry turns women (Demi Moore, to be exact) into monsters. Then there’s The Girl with the Needle, Magnus von Horn’s post-World War II gruesome story about a serial killer filmed in dramatic black and white and strongly influenced by German expressionism. And finally, there is Noémie Merlant’s latest film, The Balconettes, which is the lightest of them all and utilizes bloody horror genre tropes for social satire.

The latter film, and th focus of this review, finds Marseille drowning in a severe heatwave. The locals are hiding in their apartments, overwhelmed by heat and boredom, looking out of the windows to peep at their neighbours and the sun drenched streets. Two roommates, Ruby (Souheila Yacoub) and Nicole (Sanda Codreanu), spend these lazy days on their balcony dreaming of their handsome mysterious neighbour across the street (played by Emily in Paris star Lucas Bravo). Their routine is interrupted by the sudden arrival of their mutual friend Élise (Noémie Merlant), an actor from Paris who has escaped her needy husband to spend a few days away from it all. Daydreaming about the handsome neighbour turns into real flirting in the evenings and the three women soon find themselves at an impromptu party which will change their lives.

French actor and director Merlant chooses a straightforward approach in her second directorial effort, balancing her outlook with the experimental screenplay she co-wrote with one of the most talented contemporary directors around–Céline Sciamma. Sciamma won over the international film community with her minimalistic costume drama The Portrait of the Lady on Fire at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival (starring Merlant and Adèle Haenel) and also directed the beloved film Petite Maman a few years later. She is known for her more reserved, subtle approach as a director, which couldn’t be farther from Merlant’s exuberant style. The latter does not want to waste time on innuendos and complicated allegories; instead shouting out her ideas at the top of her lungs.

The Balconettes is an unhinged feminist horror that stuns the viewer with a good deal of blood, screaming, wackiness and naked bodies. There is a lot to take in as it seems Merlant wants to comment on literally every single problem that modern women might face: abuse, abortion, gaslighting, rape, objectification, victim blaming, suppressed anger, cam girls, and marriage going sour. So brace yourselves — there will be a good deal of bare breasts, even a vagina or two, a bit of violence, and also some mutilation that might shock some audiences. It feels like Merlant, along with her entire cast, is having plenty of fun commenting on important topics while not taking herself or the film itself too seriously.

The film’s three main characters conveniently embody specific archetypes: fantasy-obsessed intellectual Nicole, who creates romance in her head but is never able to face the object of her desires in real life; passionate and bold Ruby, never shying away from the opportunity to show herself off; and sensitive, permanently confused Élise, entrapped by her own marriage. Their lives are interrupted by the stereotypic beau whose mystical sleekness is borderline sleazy. Lucas Bravo is clearly enjoying his escape from the “good blonde boy” narrative that Hollywood has pushed him into.

The Balconettes is a daring project which tries to do everything all at once–mixing comedy, horror, paranormal, and satire. The further into the story it gets, the wackier it becomes, and eventually the director has to rely solely on words to stabilize the wobbly structure. Merlant doesn’t leave much room for interpretation and literally states her ideas, explaining it even further a couple more times for those who still can’t get a grip on what kind of film they’re watching. In no uncertain terms, the director is eager to tell all young women to stop dreaming about a perfect man, as reality rarely matches expectations, and to instead start a journey on their own which could be tiresome but liberating.

The Balconettes screened as part of the 2024 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.