Sent to a prison for young female offenders alluring Anna Amari (Adèle Exarchopoulos) makes an immediate impression on dedicated but empathetic warden Jean Firmino (Guillaume Galliene). It is not long before mutual fascination turns to passion. The illicit lovers share clandestine liaisons around the jail. Although Jean sincerely loves his wife (Stéphanie Cléau) and daughter (Aliénor Poisson) he finds it impossible to extinguish his obsession with Anna even though it is only a matter of time before romance brings disaster for both.
Down By Love was inspired by a tawdry footnote to a notorious French criminal case. In 2010 a street gang employed Soror Arbabzadeh, an attractive seventeen-year-old girl of French-Iranian descent, as bait to lure a Jewish youth named Ilan Halimi to a Parisian apartment block. There Halimi was held for ransom, horrifically tortured then eventually died from his injuries. Imprisoned along with the other twenty-seven perpetrators involved in this crime, Arbabzadeh went on to seduce both a guard and the prison director: Florent Gonçalves who was himself subsequently incarcerated over the affair. Co-scripted by Gonçalves himself (adding a layer of wish-fulfillment as his fictionalized alter-ego is established as a frustrated artist) Down By Love divorces itself from this unsettling real-life context. It makes no mention of the protagonist's crime and presents Anna and Jean's relationship as a tragic tale of amour fou rather than a dramatization of real-life events. Sort of a Betty Blue Goes to Jail. The leads even bear a passing resemblance to Béatrice Dalle and Jean-Hughes Anglade and the film punctuates its realism with occasional dreamily surreal flourishes akin to the earlier French classic.
Performed with conviction by an intense Guillaume Galliene and the ever-beguiling, effortlessly sexy Adèle Exarchopoulos, the treatment nonetheless rings false and melodramatic. The film opts for a compassionate approach some may view as humane but others might view as naïve or overly generous. Pierre Godeau draws Anna Amari and Jean Firmino as two flawed, vulnerable, desperate people drawn together by circumstance and through recognizing those qualities in each other. Early scenes tread an ambiguous line in their portrayal of Anna as both sexually manipulative yet mindful her desire to please leads her to misread situations and make bad choices. Although Exarchopoulos plays Anna as a complex human being, she also comes across as something of a fantasy figure: educated and articulate but also street-wise, tough enough to fight off a predatory lesbian bully, tender enough to care about her dear old mum. She dresses provocatively at a court hearing and prison fashion show, disrobes for an art class and clearly enjoys her relationship with Jean. Yet she is aware what they are doing is wrong and will adversely impact his wife and child. Similarly the film draws supposedly seasoned prison warden Jean as a vulnerable, sensitive, even naïve romantic hero in the classic French mould. Indeed between trysts the lovers discuss art, philosophy and classical literature as characters in French romantic dramas tend to do. Among other oddball flourishes Godeau also adds a scene where Jean imagines Anna's appearance on a Big Brother-style reality TV show, a weird moment when Anna's mother (Marie Rivière) casually mentions her fortune-teller knows all about the affair, and a sub-Girlhood (2015) bit of female bonding where the inmates lip-synch to an Iggy Azalea song.
Ignoring real-life events Godeau pursues the intertwining themes of the breaking of 'moral taboos' and the ambiguous nature of love. "Do we really fall in love or do we just like the idea?" ponders an inmate in the young offenders' literature class. Godeau leaves it up in the air as to whether this is a case of a young woman sexually manipulating an older married man, an older man abusing his position to take advantage of a vulnerable young woman, or a genuinely tragic romance where two equally flawed and vulnerable people just can't catch a break. The lack of clarity may frustrate some though, to its credit, Down By Love takes a multifaceted approach rooted in human behaviour with all its merits and failings. Having said that the film features contrived moments that would be dismissed as ridiculous in a Hollywood film while the sex scenes, though tame by comparison with Adèle Exarchopoulos' exploits in her celebrated breakthrough Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013), tread that awkward line between impassioned romantic drama and trite fantasies about women-in-prison.