The tender and affecting romance Looking for Cheyenne is Valérie Minetto's second feature, but the director shows a remarkable confidence with the medium, a delicate yet sure hand that can conjure performances and images at once realistic and dream-like. The result is an impressive achievement, one that combines terrific performances with a lovely storytelling style and themes and characters that actually matter.
Minetto's got civilization versus isolation on her mind and whether it's possible to conduct oneself and one's relationships truly and honestly when the world around you is so riddled with hypocrisy and manipulation. These are big ideas to chew on, and if Cheyenne has a major fault it may be that its themes may be too unwieldy for Minetto's simple, sparse framework. But her points come across convincingly enough.
Journalist Cheyenne (Mila Dekker) leaves Paris, fed up with not being able to find work. More than that, she's grown bitter with modern society, with how we're all cogs in the capitalist machinery, a system that treats us like dirt when we become too old, disabled or no longer useful as makers and spenders of money. Angry and dejected, Cheyenne goes to live in the countryside, without electricity or modern conveniences of any kind, leaving behind Sonia (Aurélia Petit), her longtime girlfriend.
Sonia's a science teacher, more tolerant of the ways of city life but deeply heartbroken by Cheyenne's departure. She's growing cynical about whether as a teacher she isn't wasting her breath on students who'd rather watch TV and play video games than learn. And she distracts herself from thoughts of Cheyenne by having a fling, first with Pierre (Malik Zidi), a lovesick young gadfly (who might be a more idealistic version of Godard's antisocial misfits of the ’60s), and next with Béatrice (Guilaine Londez), a love-’em-leave-’em type who thrives on mind games with her lovers.
Among Minetto's boldest stylistic choices, one at once theatrical and cinematic, is how she represents her characters' thoughts by way of direct-address asides or by grouping her characters briefly into a single setting to stage hypothetical interactions—possible projections of Sonia's dreams. Finally, thrilled with neither lover, Sonia journeys out to the farmstead where Cheyenne's ensconced herself. There, in scenes that feel direct yet unhurried, intimate yet distant, the women weigh their doubts against their willingness to compromise for a chance at a future together.
Minetto and Cécile Vargaftig's exquisite script give all of the characters a fair shake; everyone's got a legitimate reason for their actions and all endear themselves to us as relatable human beings. But it's Petit and Dekker's superb performances as the tender-hearted yet fierce-minded lovers that carry Minetto's story, and the director allows her actresses to shine naturally, without phony frills or outbursts. Framed by gorgeous compositions by Stephan Massis and delicately assembled by editor Tina Baz, Minetto and her team have created a cinematically hypnotic treat. While its big themes and intimate scale may not always gel, Cheyenne is perhaps more exciting and provocative than much of so-called "prestige" fare being shoveled out by Hollywood this time of year.
Cast: Mila Dekker, Aurélia Petit, Malik Zidi, Luc Leclerc du Sablon, Christine Dory, Guilaine Londez, Pierre Hiessler, Laurence Côte and Élénore Michelin
Director: Valérie Minetto
Screenwriters: Valérie Minetto and Cécile Vargaftig
Producer: Dominique Crèvecoeur
Genre: Romance; French-language, subtitled
Rating: R for some sexuality and language
Running time: 86 min.
Release date: December 7, 2007 NY/LA