French-Canadian director Chloe Robichaud makes her feature film debut in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard branch with a highly unique tale that has echoes of downtrodden sports films like The Wrestler, though wraps itself in a vivid, swooning tale of nascent romance. Sarah Prefers to Run (Sarah Prefere la Course), above all else, paints both filmmaker and leading lady as sure talents to watch in the future.
As you can doubtless glean from the title, 20-year-old Sarah (Sophie Desmarais) likes running, and as a standout on her local track team, decides to see if she can make it in the big athletic leagues of Montreal, moving there with a young man she barely knows, Antoine (Jean-Sebastiene Courchesne). However, things soon enough become complicated when Antoine suggests that they get married for the financial incentives, while he has a far sneaker plan in mind – to make her fall in love with him. Sarah, meanwhile, struggles to reconcile her feelings about this, while trying to keep pushing herself on the track.
Running is Sarah’s passion, though as made clear by her disapproving mother, she can’t seem to make any serious money from it. This naturally holds Sarah back from running as much as she would like, resulting in a very specific brand of existential emptiness that comes with unfulfilled desires (something we all can surely empathise with). Her obsession extends to the point of even endangering her own health; a mid-film cardiac scare does little but temporarily keep Sarah off the track. She has to run – it’s like oxygen to her.
The uneasy sexual chemistry between Sarah and Antoine is evidently what makes the rather silly marriage premise work, and though Antoine is a strange lad with misguided ideals about how to woo a lady, one can almost appreciate the twisted logic behind his attempt to kindle a relationship with his new roommate. His efforts to secure her real partnership result in some of the film’s most awkwardly funny moments, devastating in their ability to likely have audiences cringing in their seats. There’s also plenty of potent banter throughout, as Sarah is routinely ridiculed for her masculine dress sense and dour attitude, despite quite clearly being physically attractive and in the peak of health. To this end, Robichaud compares and contrasts typical notions of femininity with the almost asexual approach to the appearance that Sarah chooses.
Desmarais plays Sarah wonderfully straight against all of the absurdity taking place around her, and though it would be easy for a character like this to be seen as a wet blanket, the actress manages to portray her as refreshingly unpretentious and giddily oblivious to the advances being made toward her. Some wonderfully underplayed moments tell us plenty about Sarah’s emotional evoluion throughout the film, notably a party scene in which one of her friends sings a swelling love song, and Sarah’s face contorts through a variety of emotions as she faces up to the reality of romantic, sexual feelings for the first time. Needless to say, hopefully Desmarais will soon enough become a more familar fixture on the big screen.
Robichaud smartly leaves a few threads dangling throughout the film that remain unresolved even as the credits roll, namely the inference that Sarah may be lesbian or bisexual. An alternate reading of her behavior, meanwhile, might be that her longing glances at other girls is simply a by-product of her almost childlike innocence, or even her simple lack of experience with matters pertaining to the heart and sex (as she has put so much time and energy into running).
The ending, meanwhile, is telegraphed fairly far in advance, yet nevertheless rustles up a philsophically inconclusive close that anyone with any passion can relate to, that it is so endemic to living that to take it away is simply not an option. Sarah Prefers to Run is a coming-of-age tale (given the somewhat stunted 20-year-old protagonist) for sure, but that is just part of what is at a larger level a heartfelt, understated and sublimely-acted drama about late-blossoming sexuality.
The Upside: Robichaud’s direction is top-notch, and Desmarais is simply an acting revelation waiting for a big part to come along.
The Downside: Its slightness will naturally not appeal to some, nor the final moments, which avoid a firm resolution.
On the Side: The film features a few poetic subtitles between acts in the form of fortune cookies, though in the interest of subversion, the final one reads “the truth does not lie in a cookie.”