Biweekly Binge: Love and play – Julien Hallard’s Let the Girls Play
A fortnightly column on what’s good – old and new – in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you
The first couple of scenes of Julien Hallard's Comme des garcons (which translates to 'Like boys') or its English title -- Let the Girls Play -- are a delight. We are in the offices of a local newspaper and Stade de Reims is playing its Ligue 1 match against Saint-Etienne, a relegation battle for once celebrated Reims. Lose and they will have to wallow in second division. Reactions run the gamut, from "I'd rather die than be in second division" to "It's only football." The office is straight out of Mad Men. Secretary Emmanuelle Bruno (Vanessa Guide) goes around the office distributing papers to sign and passes several huddles of men listening to the commentary on radio. She struggles to reach a table because the men are all manspreading around the transistor and that's when there is a goal build up. She manages to place the papers, draws her hand out and contorts her face betraying a multitude of emotions that predate a goal on a fan's face. The men fail to notice. The chance missed, they come back to their senses and wonder what she's still doing there. She makes a nervous, but clean exit. Different versions of this scenario play out through the day. Emmanuelle must wait till dinner time with her father in the insulated confines of their home to finally talk about the tragic future of Stade de Reims in second division. It is 1969.
Hallard's film is a fictitious account of the creation of France's first women's football team and if you are looking for a historically accurate struggle against sexism and patriarchal power structures to put together a women's national sports team, this is not it. The film takes its women seriously rather than itself, and just wants them to have fun while battling 1969-style judgement and the pitfalls that come with it. Any complexity associated with post-1968 Paris or worldwide outrage against the politics of the times is, therefore, jettisoned, and Let the Girls Play is built like a feel-good romantic comedy.
Emmanuelle and discredited (thanks to his scathing critique of Reims' manager, Leroux) football journalist, Paul Coutard (Max Boublil) get together to plan the newspaper's annual fete, and Emmanuelle expresses an interest in a women's football game, having exhausted the ideas of little people dancing or wrestling. When she has a comment about Reims, Paul's first question is: "Is your husband a fan?" But he opens to the idea to the extent that he spots something bigger in it, the fete leaves his mind and he begins to aim for a national team. All this not because he is a feminist. He likes to be in control of the conversation, and even during a date, he falters when the woman overpowers him with words. He has bills to pay and he looks at it as a business interest.
Some of the most joyous moments in Hallard's film involve, unsurprisingly, the football scenes and the women's challenges to even get together for practice. A husband must be bribed to sign the paper giving consent to the wives to play. The applicants' age is limited at 40 but the nicknames keep flowing - the hippie-feminist goalkeeper, the "granny" who cannot last ten minutes on the field, the "bulldozer" centre back. Let the Girls Play cannot be termed "the locomotive of women's history" but the team does have a Brigitte Bardot lookalike.
Emmanuelle predictably gets the star treatment in their impromptu match against Reims' junior team when she goes on as a substitute and dribbles her way to the goal that would make Messi's goal against Getafe look like kids' stuff. But there is also the enthusiastic husband, shorter than his wife, yet looming large as the lone fan on the side of the pitch, violently waving a flag or jumping away in abandon - the team's first ultra. These images contribute to a vision of what it takes to be a fledgling part of a larger goal, the early days of playing against mobility-challenged nuns or only with ogling military men as spectators or on uneven dirty pitches.
The film doesn't even pretend to mirror reality except for some cheeky flourishes to go with the setting and the circumstances. We get a character out of the first European Cup final between Reims and Real Madrid, where one of the film's characters was marking Alfredo di Stefano. It also has other present-day realities -- old men in suits in board rooms, having their refreshments and weighing between women's place in the kitchen and on a football pitch, a star player is unveiled publicly and men comment on the effects of football on women's reproductive system. By 1969, Margaret Court and Billie Jean King had won multiple titles at French Open and Wimbledon, respectively. But football was still considered a rugged, masculine dominion compared to the snooty aristocracy of tennis. Paul's colleague at one point asks him if they should help the team as they prepare their cheaply-bought team van. He says, “Oh, don't be so macho. They are in control." Let the Girls Play has its share of romcom clichés, but it is sharp and sneaky when decides to play.
Let the Girls Play is streaming on Mubi.