Virginie Efria is everywhere. The French actress has been such a regular in contemporary cinema post her breakthrough role in Justin Triet’s (current Palme d’Or winner) 2016 film ‘In Bed with Victoria’ that it’s hard to imagine a year without at least a couple of her movies making waves. After her controversial turn in Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta, 2022 alone had three Efria releases. Similarly, 2023 has kicked off with another sensational performance from her in All to Play For, which was screened at the Festival De Cannes under the Un Certain Regard section.
Directed by debutant Delphine Deloget, All to Play For (Rien à perdre), stars Efira as Sylvie – a single mother to her two children, Sofiane (Alexis Tonetti) & Jean-Jacques ( Félix Lefebvre). She is barely holding the fort down, juggling her life as a bartender and managing to help her two sons get the best possible care she can provide. The initial setup provides us with a glimpse into her chaotic life – she is battling drunken men in the bar she works at, handling a woman who has passed out, and trying to find time to take the call of her elder son, who has been trying to reach her because her youngest one burnt himself while trying to cook French fries.
For a large part of this setup, audiences are made aware of Sylvie’s fly-on-the-wall approach, but her tight-knit community of friends and love towards her children make you believe that she can make it all work. Of course, that belief system is soon smashed when the incident of her younger son Sofiane being admitted to emergency comes back to bite her. Child Protection Worker Mademoiselle Henry (India Hair) shows up on her doorsteps one day with two police offers and takes Sofiane away, citing that she and her long absences from home pose an imminent danger to her son.
The rest of the film turns into a tense drama about a mother’s fight to get her son back and the French authorities’ strict social system that doesn’t allow her to. This, Us against Them narrative that director Deloget chooses to take up feels like a simplistic and straightforward legal story, but since a whole lot of time is spent on delivering this side of the story, it’s not easy to choose a side in spite of us rooting for Sylvie. Thanks to a well-written and rooted conflict, the movie takes us through an arduous journey of Sylvie’s struggle to make things work while constantly plummeting into the depth of self-made hell.
Above all, this is an interesting character study more than anything else. The initial strong-willed persona of the woman is unmasked slowly to reveal a flawed woman who has been doing a balancing act for so long that the scale is no more visible to her – or to us. Her action, in spite of coming from the right place, doesn’t always feel sound, making the conflict of this custody drama extremely strong. Moreover, since it is rooted in a very real problem, all of Sylvie’s decisions feel right and wrong at the same time. The uphill battle of trying to get her son back and the way Virginie Efria completely commands the character are the strongest part of the film.
It’s, however, sad that the film is unable to lead to a conclusion that really feels plausible within the context of the battle it insinuates. Making the climax feels like a complete cop-out, especially when it poses the question, ‘Is love enough?’ I mean, I feel it is, but the film doesn’t do enough to justify it.