Anaïs (Anaïs Demoustier, “Time of the Wolf”), the charmingly frustrating heroine of Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet’s directorial debut “Anaïs in Love,” is always on the run. Hair flying, sundress whipping in the wind, sandals slapping on the Paris pavement, Anaïs would be the first to admit she’s chronically late. But her constant running is more than just a consequence of her tardiness — it’s a reflection of her restless mental state.
She’s always running towards someone (literally and figuratively, running from one lover’s bed to another), but the real question is: what, or who, is she running away from? And what might happen if she stops to stay for a while?
Anaïs’ running calls to mind other cinematic heroines we’ve seen in motion, most recently Renate Reinsve’s Julie in “The Worst Person in the World,” and Greta Gerwig’s Frances in “Frances Ha.” This trio are young women with big dreams, little ambition and complicated love lives that often stymie their creative output. They are equally beguiling and bedeviling to the people around them, which is what makes them such fascinating creatures, both deeply relatable and endlessly unknowable.
Bourgeois-Tacquet’s style is as breathless and entertaining as the film’s protagonist. Cinematographer Noé Bach’s handheld camera tries desperately to keep up with her, following closely behind, whipping back and forth as if a spectator at a tennis match, volleying between Anaïs and the bewildered recipients of her rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness monologues. She overshares with everyone from her befuddled landlord, to the Korean tourists to whom she rents her apartment, to her old lover Raoul (Christophe Montenez, “The Mad Women’s Ball”), with whom she rented the apartment but found she couldn’t cohabitate.
Anaïs has a half-finished thesis, no money and no job, but all of that doesn’t seem to concern her too much. She’s on to the next issue too fast to care. She’s pregnant, her mom’s cancer has returned, and so on and so forth. The swift edit and rapid-fire scene transitions add to both the jarring and comedic nature of how quickly Anaïs moves on.
During a complicated elevator ride to a housewarming party (she’s claustrophobic), she charms an older man, Daniel (Denis Polaydès, “Caché”) with her beauty and unrefined, unabashed nature. But as soon as they jump into bed, Anaïs jumps right out, her non-committal nature getting in the way of what could be a casual, all-too French extramarital affair. Daniel is partnered with a well-known novelist, Emilie (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, “Summer of 85”), and he doesn’t want to disrupt his comfortable life too much. Anaïs hardly seems interested in him anyway.
She does, however, become interested in Emilie, to the point of all-consuming obsession. Anaïs reads her novels and watches her interviews, going so far as to blow off a temp job at her university to crash a writer’s symposium on the coast in Brittany to get closer to her. Through Emilie’s writing, Anaïs feels like she knows her, that they’re the same person, in a way, and finally, Anaïs finds someone, something to hold her addled attention.
She schemes her way into Emilie’s life and enters a strangely competitive love triangle with Daniel, the former lovers bickering and fighting over the alluring Emilie. The turn from Daniel to Emilie is a sly, sapphic subversion of the trope of the older, married writer taking a young lover, especially because Anaïs, though flighty, is anything but naïve. She practically stalks Emilie like prey.
The connection between the two women is real, and their steamy, beachside affair is one of the only times we ever see Anaïs focus and relax. But again, as the audience, we have to wonder, as even Emilie does, what this affair means for Anaïs? Is her laser-focus attention on Emilie actually love and adoration, or is it a projection of what she eventually wants for her own future? It’s these chewy, complex themes that make this otherwise light-as-a-feather, sexy, quirky, coming-of-age comedy much deeper, and more existential than it seems.
Bourgeois-Tacquet’s script is loaded with witty bon mots and carefully-constructed insights, such as when Anaïs hurls the accusation at Raoul, “You’re too violent in your inertia and your nonchalance,” or declares to her parents, “I don’t want to meet interesting people, I want to be interesting,” but it never feels pretentious or too precious, thanks in large part to Demoustier’s tornado of a performance. Her energy as Hurricane Anaïs is akin to a whirling dervish, but she manages to hold the center of gravity and keep the character real, vulnerable and yes, lovable, despite or perhaps because of her flaws.
Of course, as we’ve known all along, Anaïs is only running from herself. It’s Emilie who helps her to see that, maybe, Anaïs is worth slowing down and spending time with, and Bourgeois-Tacquet’s winning, whimsical film is absolutely worth spending your time on too.
“Anaïs in Love” opens in US theaters April 29 and on VOD May 6.