As a lifelong lover of cinema and patron to the likes of Harmony Korine, Gaspar Noé, and Claire Denis, it’s surprising that 73-year-old Agnès Troublé, a.k.a acclaimed fashion designer agnès b, wasn’t bitten by the filmmaking bug until now. Her debut feature, My Name is Hmmm…, certainly suggests she’s absorbed the work of her cinematic compadres—Korine in particular—even as it bears both the inquisitive spirit and uncertain first steps of a much younger director.
Part experimental fairytale and part raw social document, My Name is Hmmm… depicts a road trip in which two lost souls cross paths en route to personal oblivion. Sexually abused by her unemployed father, 11-year-old Céline (Lou-Lélia Demerliac) escapes from a school excursion and boards a big rig truck driven by Peter (Douglas Gordon), a middle-aged Scotsman harboring his own dark secret behind a rough exterior.
Troublé telegraphs these drifters’ destinies early on, cross-cutting between Peter’s job dissatisfaction and Céline’s domestic strife, then settles in to slog through an extended set-up involving the girl’s family—her absent, hard-working mother (Sylvie Testud) and emasculated, sinister father (Jacques Bonnaffé)—that comes across almost as predictable as it is admittedly disturbing. These early scenes, which waver uneasily between Céline’s fragile perspective and sympathy for her weepy father who berates his transgression, struggle to find a voice while negotiating sub-Haneke terrain.
Once Céline hitches a ride with Peter, who is headed towards the English Channel, My Name is Hmmm… finds a more assured groove, and Troublé’s filmmaking is more confident for it. Peter’s truck, adorned with colorful dashboard trinkets, glows cherry-red against the open blue sky and becomes a kind of surrogate childhood sanctuary for Céline. The enigmatic, unspoken sequences between them possess an intuition that the perfunctory dialogue scenes lack. She comes to trust him, for lack of a better role model, while his reluctance to ask her questions—she simply calls herself the “Hmmm” of the title—only deepens the mystery of his circumstance. Parallel scenes of Céline’s worried parents and police searches persist, yet they become increasingly like nightmares intruding upon the girl’s dreamlike journey.
As a writer and director, Troublé’s work isn’t especially remarkable, but that’s just part of the picture. As a conceptualist, co-editor, and costume designer, My Name is Hmmm… bears the mark of her particularly ethereal creative instinct. As one might guess, Troublé’s eye for detail is acute. The way in which Céline scrawls promises to herself on her arm, the texture of a moving pavement, and the scattered objects on a beach or a neon horse that rides intrepidly beneath the windshield conjure evocative impressions of the world as it looks to a child. It’s the sort of cross-country trip where the appearance of Butoh dancers, painted in all-white as though on loan from a Japanese ghost story, feels entirely normal.
The frequent formal recourse to oversaturated video shots—invoking, perhaps, Korine’s more recent work—effectively conveys this skewed world through Céline’s eyes, to mostly abrasive but sometimes comedic effect: at one point, a provincial barkeep’s eyes light up Thriller-yellow as he makes like a cartoon werewolf, reinforcing the fairytale grotesquerie. Laying on a thick coat of Vivaldi, Sonic Youth, and The Fall on the soundtrack, Troublé reveals herself to be something of a student of Carax and Godard (there’s even a clip of Tout va bien inserted for good measure), while Jonas Mekas was presumably enlisted in some capacity, too (he gets a credits shout-out for the film’s nighttime fire scene). On occasion, this studied eclecticism falters—one sequence, entitled “the father’s dream,” veers perilously close to Ghost World’s art film parody “Mirror, Father Mirror”—but on the whole, its aesthetic ambition also exudes personality.
Yet for all the ample visual curios, My Name is Hmmm… is ultimately too unfocused to really cohere as an effective, satisfying whole. As it drags its feet toward a disappointingly rushed and glib conclusion, the film labors Troublé’s promising experimental flourishes where a tighter, more focused edit might have served to elevate those strengths. As debuts go, however, My Name is Hmmm… demonstrates a willingness to engage with some unusual visual devices—enough to suggest that Troublé’s sensitive and textured approach to cinema might yield a much more successful film in the future.