The chic balconies of Marseille certainly offer an image that is photogenic enough to open Noémie Merlant’s sophomore feature, The Balconettes, especially as seen from the meandering perspective of a crane shot. As the camera traces facades and their baby-blue window blinds, we’re perhaps reminded of Rear Window. Yet small figures of women and men try to cope with the heat and we, as spectators, have the privileged viewpoint into their flats. On one of those balconies, a woman is being beaten for what seems to be the thousandth time. But now she fights back. This is only the beginning of a film that will blend comedy and supernatural horror tropes to show the many ways women can look after one another in the face of violence.

The Balconettes is Merlant’s second feature as a director, following several shorts and the 2021 Cannes entry Mi Iubita Mon Amour. A modest film about a woman who has an affair with a 17-year-old boy on her bachelorette trip in Romania, Mi Iubita encountered some hitches in its storytelling; despite looking great and capturing a mood of uncertainty and searching, it was a bit of a let-down. The Balconettes is the kind of work Merlant is cut out to make: exuberant, funny, and bold, a real testament to the power of female friendship seen through farce and horror tropes.

In a heatwave, windows are open and the people of Marseille can peek into their neighbors’ houses just as easily. Nicole (Sanda Codreanu) is a writer and a dreamer, thus the first one to spot a new handsome guy across the street. He (Lucas Bravo, the Emily in Paris heartthrob) remains nameless throughout, but boy do we see his abs. Nicole is inspired enough to write an erotic story about this mysterious man––seemingly the closest she will get to a sexual escapade this summer, until her flatmate Ruby (Souhelia Yacoub), who is a camgirl and way less inhibited, strikes up a conversation with him. Soon, with the chaotic addition of their high-strung actress friend Èlise (Merlant) the three of them head over to his apartment to party. Then, as most evenings in a hot nude photographer’s studio do, things turn sour.

A comedy of errors runs in parallel with an achingly real story of rape: these are the two irreconcilable facets of life the three women must deal with throughout the film. Merlant is a highly empathetic director, and with some help and guidance from Céline Sciamma––credited as collaborator on the script––she succeeds in doing feminism justice while continuously shifting between absurd and grotesque. Cinematographer Evgenia Alexandrova photographs the women separately and together with the same attention in long shot and close-up; the gradual expansion of their shared strength translates in both interior and exterior shots, where the trio’s central framing dominates the scene.

Aesthetically, The Balconettes is an explosion of colors and textures that recall Almodóvar, and while the level of absurdity in comic scenes may shock you––you’ll never guess what happens to the neighbor’s penis, for example––Merlant retains a clear focus on the political message against abuse and violence. In relation to this the film makes use of some rape-revenge tropes, but it’s important to note it avoids the trap of vilification for the sake of it. Merlant knows women don’t need to make men small in order to reclaim their bodies or their presence of equality, which makes her a great director for such a genre mash-up. That said, I would personally abstain from peeking through my neighbor’s window for the time being.

The Balconettes premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.

Grade: B+

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