Trauma affects us all in different ways.
Some people bury the resulting hurt and pain so deeply that it never sees the light of day again, pretending that everything is fine, just fine thank you, while others exhume it, sort through it and dispense with it, glad it has been seen and dealt with but happy to never see it again.
Or if you are Aglaé Lanctot (India Hair), the eponymous protagonist of the 2017 Eric Gravel film Crash Test Aglaé you replace the feeling of chaotic helplessness, of things being permanently out of control with order so strictly enforced that there is no capacity for any deviation from the established order.
It works well enough if life behaves itself and doesn’t throw you curve balls of any kind; although as one scene in this quirkily charming film ably demonstrates, not always with Aglaé rather stubbornly insisting that she and her all women team finish their game of cricket and go to their customary Thai after-dinner despite the fact that it’s pouring rain and all anyone wants to do is get home and get dry.
But what if something entirely untoward happening such as the factory in which you work as a crash test dummy technician – Aglaé sets the dummies up in the car and works out precisely how best to send them careening into a wall – being relocated to India, far away from France?
Most people would simply accept the proffered redundancy, realise their life was about to alter substantially and do their best to ride the wave of consequential change.
But most people are not Aglaé who finds the idea of re-inventing her highly-structured and well-ordered life unbearable to even consider, choosing instead to relocate to India on less pay and no benefits.
Hardly the most sensible of decisions but all Aglaé wants is safety and certainty, or at least the illusion of them, and so convincingly adamant is she about her course of action, which no one at the factory’s HR department expects, that she convinces her two lunchmates, Liette Julie Depardieu and Marcelle (Yolande Moreau) to cone along for the ride.
And it is, quite literally, a ride.
With the tight-fisted company refusing to pay for the relocation airfares to India, the three women end up deciding to drive in Marcelle’s very small compact car all the way across Europe and through the Central Asian republics all the way down to their new eventual home.
It’s a gloriously idiosyncratic decision that results in an equally idiosyncratic journey, one that is played for laughs but also a great deal of poignancy as each of the women deal with their trauma, small or large, and how the pain they are holding onto is affecting their decision to uproot things.
Gravel has done a masterful job of giving each of these individual characters room to do their thing – Liette is fleeing a broken relationship with adulterous partner and union boss at the factory Clovis (Tristán Ulloa) while hilariously eccentric, no-fucks-to-give Marcelle simply wants to do something different.
The spotlight is, of course, on Aglaé who has charted an overland course to India, one which brooks no detours or delays and which gets to her new safe place with minimum and disruption.
Of course, that’s rarely how life works and Crash Test Aglaé does a thoroughly beguiling job of showing our sweetly moribund protagonist when one after another, things do not go remotely according to plan.
The joy of this most transformational of road trips is that Aglaé, for all quirks and eccentricities and her simmering fury at the world – the product of a childhood with a fire breathing stripper mother who did not provide anything providing a stable and loving childhood, a deficiency made all the worse by the absence of any kind of father figure – really does undergo some fairly profound change on the way to India.
It is very funny on many occasions, lending the film an almost farcical, surrealistic tone at times, but it is also moving in ways that will surprise you.
Every step of the journey challenges Aglaé in some fundamental way and while she doesn’t set out to change, since any conscious decision to do that is anathema to her, she ends up doing precisely that, discovering the stripped bare of all the inhibiting trauma that perhaps she is braver and more accepting of things than she thinks.
And that life, that small tiny box in which she long ago inserted herself all the while refusing to move or make herself more comfortable or fulfilled, can surprise you with its expansiveness when you finally, if accidentally truth be told, allow to show what it can do.
Watching all of that happen to Aglaé who goes from almost gratingly odd to adorably vulnerable and open is the central narrative pleasure of this most delightfully offbeat of films.
Crash Test Aglaé deftly brings together some really affecting life-changing moments, the kind that have the emotional power and capacity to turn your life right around, with some highly amusing quirks and a therapy session and then some worth of insights that anyone who has ever felt even a little bit stuck in life will readily identify with.
It’s that accessibility and sense of grounded humanity that make Crash Test Aglaé such an impressive joy to watch.
Gravel could have simply flicked the silly switch and let the film play out as one charmingly strange moment after another, but he chooses not to, investing the film with an affecting truthfulness that sits perfectly alongside the more off-the-wall elements in the film.
It’s a marriage of the silly and the surreal with the harsh reality of life’s sometimes imprisoning choices, and it works a thoughtfully enchanting treat, giving us a film that not only changes the protagonist in ways she doesn’t even see coming but could very well have the same effect on us if we’re open to it.