Bourgeois Power Struggles Dominate Lea Frazer’s ‘Notre Univers Impitoyable’

John McGovern


Notre Univers Impitoyable (2 stars out of 4)


The opening scene of Lea Frazer’s Notre Univers Impitoyable (the English translation is What If…?) follows an argument between two sisters, Margot and Éléonore, about the role a woman should play in the workforce. Thus, the infamous Bechdel test is broken right away. Always count on the French to challenge cinematic conventions. Even more commercial French films like this one demonstrate the nation’s revolutionary history. But before long, the patriarchy rears its ugly head to put the women back in their oppressed places, as their rapacious dialogue regresses to a more typical conversation concerned with husbands and marriage. This foreshadows the pace and thematic explorations of the rest of the film, where we (i.e., the audience) are constantly reminded that, despite their best efforts, women are known as the gentler sex for a reason.


A recurring theme in Shakespeare is the elusive nature of symbolic identities, particularly their relationship to gender. Many of his plays feature gender-bending moments, with characters that dress differently in order to expose the superficial differences between them. This theme runs throughout Notre Univers Impitoyable, and its disjointed narrative plays out two different scenarios involving the power couple of Victor and Margot. Both work at a law firm and are in a position to receive a promotion, and the film switches back and forth between what would happen if each were to transcend their meager status as a faceless bureaucrat and command real authority at the firm. 


At the beginning of the story, there are a few quick allusions to the influence of American pop culture on France; the family sings the theme song to Dallas, and Éléonore’s children receive shiny U.S. toys (a lightsaber and a Barbie, respectively). Though these are certainly details that could’ve accumulated to present an interesting theme (see Kurosawa’s Ikiru for a great example of this), they are never touched upon again, and I was left questioning how intentional they actually were and, as the film progressed, how much of an auteur this director truly was.

Although the film may subvert some clichés, it adheres to some as well; it is a love story about a good-looking, white, upper-class couple that goes about their generic white-collar jobs with an unreflective joyfulness. Despite all of the intense bourgeois power struggles going on, the couple never breaks into a fight until the final sequence of the film, and before a potentially enlightening moment occurs, the film reverts to the start.


While a storybook ending, every once in a while, never hurt anybody, it’s flat here. Not a cop-out, simply flat. Instead of sorting out all of the rampant social climbing that has been going on for 80 minutes, the couple walks happily into the sunset. The film’s optimism is similar to that of countless Hollywood rom-coms and melodramas.


Providing a fresh enough take on the typically dull subject of modern love (it pains me to write the phrase), Notre Univers Impitoyable is a decent antidote to the love stories mass-produced by the hacks of Hollywood, but unfortunately it does not push its initial, progressive ideas far enough to make it an above average film. If your relationship thrives off of traditional ideas about love and marriage, then stay away. Otherwise, if you’re looking for something lighter to watch after an Aronofsky binge or whatever it was, this will not be a bad choice. And, hey, at least French always sounds nicer than English.


Author Bio:

John McGovern is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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