When I was a child, there was an awesome game show on TV Saturday afternoons that, for whatever reason, I became obsessed with and that program was American Gladiators. For those of you too young to remember. American Gladiators was a competition show where amateur athletes from around the country would compete in a season-long athletic contest for the title of “Grand Champion.” Part of the competition included some combat with the shows titular gladiators. They were all bodybuilders with cool names like Zap, Bronco, and Elektra. The women, just like the men, were in a word…jacked.
Why the hell am I talking about American Gladiators right now? Because Elsa Amiel’s Pearl took me back to that show. Taking place over the course of a bodybuilding contest, we see men and women that are…jacked. When I say jacked, I mean…JACKED. The most defined muscles in all of Europe are traipsing around in one hotel, The Eden. Our central focus is on a female bodybuilder Léa Pearl and all the steps she has taken and is still taking to win the title of “Miss Heaven” at this international bodybuilding competition.
“Taking place over the course of a bodybuilding contest, we see men and women that are…jacked. When I say jacked, I mean…JACKED.”
Pearl takes place in France, but there seems something so overtly American about the sport of bodybuilding. It relies almost entirely on superficiality. However, the plot and overall tone of the film are incredibly French. Léa is obsessed with being tagged the biggest and badest. She has one of the best coaches in the community, Al, at her disposal. He’s invested in Léa’s success because he’s her coach, but he’s also her lover. Additionally, we see later that he coaches because he’s always wanted to win the competition himself, but is handicapped.
The conflict comes when Léa is preparing for the contest in her hotel room and suddenly her ex-husband Ben arrives with their son, Joseph. Léa hasn’t seen Joseph in four years and is not ready to in the midst of what is to be her big moment. Ben doesn’t care and insists that Léa take care of Joseph, which causes a rift in Léa’s relationship with Al, and her desire to continue on this career path.
We discover the difficulties that accompany bodybuilding. Massive cramping, extremely restrictive diet, and what is possibly the worst one, “drying out.” To meet the exact weight requirements and to have nothing between their muscles and their skin, the athletes rarely drink water, while still lifting hundreds and hundreds of pounds.
“…found myself definitely not identifying with Léa at all for the first third of the film, but she grew on me the more the film went on…”
This film is incredibly visually arresting and at times reminds me of a more restrained Gasper Noé film. There’s an incredible electronic soundtrack throughout and a feeling of constant motion with the cameras. Pearl also reminds me of Ulrich Seidel’s work. With the documentary feel and the desperation of the characters, the film is entirely unique in its own right.
The story arc to the film is very satisfying. I found myself definitely not identifying with Léa at all for the first third of the film, but she grew on me the more the film went on. My favorite performance in the whole film is Vidal Arzoni’s in the role of Joe. He is one of the best child actors I’ve seen in quite some time. He breaks your heart throughout.
I think it’s fair to mention that there is not very much sentimentality in this film, at least not till the last third. It cast a rather glaring lens on its subjects and subject matter. Léa’s treatment of her son in the first ⅔’s of the movie is particularly discomfiting. However, Pearl is beautiful and unapologetic. It brings us to a place of understanding Léa, whose name is actually Julia, by the time the credits roll. If you admire the works of Noé and Seidl (particularly Models), I would seek Pearl out immediately.
Pearl (2019). Directed by Elsa Amiel. Written by Elsa Amiel and Laurent Larivière. Starring Julia Föry, Peter Mullan, Vidal Arzoni, Arieh Worthalter, Agata Buzek, Khoudiedji Sidibe.
8 out of 10 stars