Like most parents, Marie (Laure Calamy) just wants to make sure her 17 year old son (Adrien, played by Nissim Renard) has the best chance to follow his dreams. What Adrien wants is to become a chef, but the school Marie wants to get him into is expensive. Marie has been a prostitute, by choice, for many years. She’s not shy about her job; Adrien knows what she does, she’s honest about it when applying for a loan, and happily stands at the front of protests with other sex workers. However, she’s not bringing in enough for Adrien’s tuition fees, so rather than continuing to scrape a living working from home, she calls in a favour from Bruno (Sam Louwyck) to get a job in the strip club/brothel he runs, leading to fallout with Adrien and the other girls in the club.
There are films about sex workers in almost every genre, but few I can recall strike the same balance as Her Way. The film engages with many different circumstances within sex work. Marie is initially a prostitute by choice, we see her being friendly with regular and first time clients alike, sometimes working almost as a therapist. We also see her bonds with other girls, as she works with them to protest against a new law, and asks one of the trans girls, who has a law degree, to help Adrien with his application to culinary school.
However, the film doesn’t paint sex work as sunshine and roses, we see a clear demarcation line between Marie and her friends and the (usually African) street girls that extends almost to prejudice on both sides, a tension that is replicated when Marie arrives at the club. Things begin to feel seedier in the second half of the film, mostly because, as the school tuition bill comes close to being due, it’s easy to feel Marie’s agency slipping away. If before she was surviving in a job she enjoyed and was good at, now we see her selling herself in a way that seems much more purely mercenary, and that’s something that Adrien is clearly disturbed by too. In one scene, he follows his mother to the club. He knows what she does for a living, but seeing it up close he also registers, probably for the first time, that this is driven by the need to get something for him.
The various elements of the story don’t always come together. The fact that ‘the lawyer’ (an excellent performance from Romain Brau) disappears from the film for such a long time is a shame, the first scene they (the film often uses he/him pronouns for the character, but they seem uncomfortable with this) have with Adrien has a dynamic that could have been interestingly explored, and is much more original than the bulk of the scenes at the club, which live much more into sex work cliches than the early scenes with Marie working her day to day. This is especially true of scenes with Bruno, who is a stereotypically unsavoury figure as the club’s owner. That’s not, however, to say there aren’t strong moments at the club. Notably, besides Adrien turning up, a short series of scenes about Marie finding an envelope full of money and, thinking the girl it belongs to has been deported, taking it comes to a head in a very effective sequence in the club’s back room.
The fractious relationship between Marie and Adrien brings out the best in the performances of Laure Calamy and Nissim Renard. The writing is sometimes by the numbers rebellious teen and annoyed parent, but Calamy and Renard play it with realism, her mix of exasperation and affection ringing particularly true. Calamy, best known for Call my Agent!, carries the film with conviction. Her Marie is someone who has learnt the art of dealing with and appealing to people, and it’s interesting to see her in moments where those skills can’t help her, whether it’s with the bank or with Adrien’s various school administrators. She’s very good at showing how Marie adopts a character depending on the client or the situation, and she lifts what is often a slightly clunky screenplay.
Her Way presents a rounder and richer portrayal of a sex worker than we generally see, but that’s mostly thanks to Laure Calamy’s performance. At under 100 minutes, it’s easy to see storylines that were either underdeveloped initially or fell on the cutting room floor, which would do more to colour in the world around its main character. This is absolutely worth seeing for Calamy and Nissim Renard, but eventually it’s more by the numbers than you’d initially expect.