‘In Bed With Victoria’ shows how ordinary depression can look like
There’s a scene right in the middle of Justine Triet’s In Bed With Victoria that changes everything we’ve seen before and defines everything we’re about to see. The titular Victoria (masterfully portrayed by Virginie Efira) is laying down in bed, smiling while one of her little girls is gently stroking her back. The entire tone of the scene changes once the small girl says to her ‘I love you’. Victoria starts crying, trying to keep her sobs quiet as to not alarm the girl, who still keeps stroking her back. Before that point in the film, the two girls were minor characters, and they will return to that status afterwards as well. Victoria’s family life is not connected to the main plot of the film — but for the first time, we get to see how important it is to her.
The original title of the 2016 French film is simply Victoria. It has been renamed in its English version to avoid confusion with Sebastian Schnipper’s film of the same name and year — however the English title largely suggests that the film is as much about Victoria than about her (sexual) relationships. While her relationships with other people (mostly men) do play a key role in who she is, don’t get it wrong: the film is about her. Not anyone else. And to be fair, at the moment, she can’t really afford to think about anyone else.
When we meet her, Victoria is knee-deep into her work as a criminal lawyer. Her babysitter quits after complaining to her about how little she actually comes home. Every night, she invites a different man inside her house to have sex with her. But this night is different: she has to go to a wedding. She stares absentmindedly at a couple of her friends as they sing a silly song for the bride. She catches up with the man of the couple (Vincent, played by Melvil Poupaud), who seems in a strange mood. And then, the ball drops: the woman who was gleefully singing on the stage just a few hours ago (Eve, played by Alice Daquet) has been stabbed. And she’s blaming Vincent.
Vincent, of course, denies everything, claiming that Eve stabbed herself in order to ruin his life. We here have a solid starting point for what could be an interesting court drama — but the court is only one aspect of Victoria’s life. The film is infinitely more interested in her and her internal turmoils than in what her acquaintances did or didn’t do.
In the first half of the film, Victoria has no problem with joking around, smiling, getting angry or confused. Something does feel slightly off. She’s always running from one place to the other. When she gets home, the new man she planned on having sex with on that particular night is there within minutes. She doesn’t have a second to think about herself. It takes us a while to realize that it is because she doesn’t want to. Her worst nightmare happens when she is suspended from her duties during six months after accidentally talking with a witness. Those six months are presented to us in a flash, but it is one of the most important moments of the film. Stuck at home with nothing to do, for the first time, Victoria is allowed to spend time with her daughters and more importantly, herself. Sometimes, she likes it: she bakes, plays games, goes grocery shopping. And sometimes she stares at the emptiness in front of her with so much suffering in her eyes we wonder how no one can notice how close to a breakdown she is. Well, almost no one.
The film certainly wouldn’t work as well as it does without a very special character: Sam (Vincent Lacoste), a former client that Victoria meets again at the wedding that kickstarts the story. Sam is a reformed drug dealer in search of a job, ideally in the law business, and a couch to crash on. Victoria has the latter, and is in dire need of a new babysitter. Things start out about as awkwardly as you’d expect, but with time, the two get closer to each other. We don’t know much about Sam’s past life, but we know that it is enough for him to understand Victoria in her strangest phases. When she runs out of her room during a panic attack, he’s there to help her calm down. When her ex-husband becomes famous through a defamatory blog, he’s there to listen to her vent. When she gets more and more self-destructive, he is the one to warn her about what she’s doing to herself. We don’t have specific ages for any of the characters, but if the actors are any indication, Sam is in his twenties, Victoria in her forties. There should be an entire world between the two of them, yet no one understands them as much as they do.
From the sole synopsis and description of its main character, Justine Triet’s film sounds like an incredibly depressing experience. Some may consequently be surprised to realize that the film is a comedy. It won’t make you laugh out loud, rather relying on the absurdity of its characters and situations. A trial involving both a dog and a monkey as key witnesses is bound to get some smiles out of the audience. Even the most tragic aspects of the film, like seeing a defense lawyer having to take meth to be able to stand in court, are so incongruous that we can get some humor out of it. And indeed, the film successfully shows that mental illness is not an all or nothing issue. If anything, it is more of an all and nothing. You can be laughing and still be in deep distress all the same. Pain isn’t only real when you look miserable. Victoria goes through all of these extremes.
No easy solution is proposed to her. The film has never tried to make her issues simpler than what they truly are. What we get is but a glimpse into her life: there is no doubt that there will be relapses, that her life after we leave her will be just as complicated. She already was aware of her condition before: we see her talking to a therapist, and even to a fortuneteller when therapy doesn’t bring her enough answers. Why, then, should we watch the film ? Wouldn’t we feel hopeless after all of this, like there is no solution to any type of mental distress ? Thankfully, In Bed With Victoria is no cynical trap. Victoria can’t change — not right away. But for the first time, she had to confront all of the things that she was desperate to avoid. Just doing this is an incredibly important first step towards recovery. We leave the film with an important, almost paradoxical message: the world will never stop turning just because of us, and we’ll always have to confront it at some point — but it’s also not a crime to take a break once in a while. Accepting help from others can be hard, but it can sometimes be the only way to help yourself. The Victoria we leave in the final minutes of the film is just as unstable as the one we met in the first act. The difference between the two ? She’s getting ready to do the bravest thing one can do after years of avoiding it: heal. Victoria can be selfish, messy and self-destructive, but we’ve also seen her be funny, smart, thoughtful. She’s a deeply unique character, and yet one many people will recognize themselves in. For that reason, the journey we have with her is the most satisfying we could have had — and when the credits start rolling, we just want to wish her good luck.