Garance Marillier shines as one of French soccer’s living legends in a worthy film that cannot quite match its star play for play.
This review is part of our coverage of the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival.
While most of Marinette’s ensemble speak French, the picture itself speaks in a far more universal language—inspirational sports biography. While the particulars of filmmaker Virginie Verrier’s work may be distinct, the broad strokes of its story will feel familiar to anyone who knows the form. That does not mean that it is not entertaining or exciting—it often is—but considering its groundbreaking subject, I couldn’t help but wish that the film celebrating her had tried to match her audacity and uniqueness.
According to Marinette, soccer player Marinette Pichon (Garance Marillier) discovered a group of kids playing the beautiful game in a field one day in her hometown and instantly became fascinated. With her coach’s encouragement and unfailingly loyal mother (Emilie Duquenne), she would become a star on the field. But when she turned 16 in 1991, mixed-gender teams were no longer an option. Her break came when she was recruited to a second division team headed by a coach (Sylvie Testud) who recognized her talent—the beginning of a professional career that would see her join the French national team, take part in the 2001 European championships, become the first French woman to be signed to play professionally in America, play in the World Cup and score 81 goals before retiring in 2007.
While control of the ball and the field seemed easy for Pichon, she was, in reality, dealing with many obstacles. She grew up with a drunken and abusive father who would constantly beat her mother and terrorize the rest of her family. After finally getting her chance to play for real, she was forced to confront both the French sports authorities’ general disinterest towards women’s soccer—including shabby accommodations and a per-game allowance that was a pittance compared to the men’s team—and the petty jealousy of a veteran teammate instantly hostile to the hot new player.
When Pichon made it to America to play for the Philadelphia Charge, all seemed well for a while—she was paid much closer to her worth, and the game as a whole was treated with more respect—but after a few years, the league (the Women’s United Soccer Association, which folded in 2003) went bankrupt. She was forced to return to France. Pichon was also lesbian and had to grapple with everything from insensitive questions from journalists and homophobic catcalls from stands to an abusive relationship of her own during her stay in America. Through it all, she persevered, driven by sheer determination to succeed at the game that she loved—perhaps more than it ever loved her. There is a triumph there.
Verrier tours the critical moments in Pichon’s life in a slick and swiftly paced manner—perhaps too swiftly for Marinette’s good. In juggling Pichon’s accomplishments on the field with her personal and professional issues, Verrier has much to cover in just over 90 minutes. Things get so rushed after a while (especially in the picture’s last third, which relies too heavily on montages) that I wished the film could have gone on a little longer, that its disparate and major elements might have had a little more time to breathe. The athletic sequences are done reasonably well, though some of the later sequences are awkwardly assembled to the point that it’s challenging to determine what is happening. The sum is a sports biopic that’s more than a little familiar. While that may be helpful for those unaware of Pichon or her achievements, those looking for something a little deeper may find it frustrating.
The best thing about Marinette—the thing that ultimately makes it worth watching despite its abruptness and overfamiliar storytelling—is Marillier’s performance of Pichon. You may remember her from her electrifying debut performance as a young woman introduced to the pleasures of the flesh, so to speak, in Julia Ducornau’s Raw. Compared to the weirdness and extremity of Ducornau’s cannibalistic coming-of-age tale, Marinette may be lighter, but Marillier tackles it with the same intensity and dedication. Even during the moments when the fromage threatens to get a bit thick, her performance remains convincing and grounded throughout. Thanks to her work, Marinette is worth a look, especially for folks looking to pre-game the Women’s World Cup before it starts in July.