erik lundegaard

A Checkout Girl
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A Checkout Girl’s Big Adventure (Les tribulations d'une caissière) (2011)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“A Checkout Girl’s Big Adventure” is hardly a cashier du cinema.

Here’s a scene three-quarters of the way through that exemplifies its monumental stupidity, its arc de stupid, its tour imbecile.

Our title character, Solweig (Déborah François), a cashier at a Target-like store, is being followed into the women’s locker room (cashiers have locker rooms in France?) by the creepy, petty floor manager, Mercier (Jean-Luc Couchard), who has just found out—ah ha!—that the mysterious blogger, misscheckingout.com, who has gotten over a million hits expounding on customer-service matters, and whose posts have led to the beginning of a nationwide strike by checkout girls in France (are there no checkout boys in France?), is, in fact ... Solweig! She’s the one who’s making the lives of management miserable! So what does he do with this information? How does he handle Solweig, who, he now knows, has the ear of the nation and a forum with which to talk to millions about every aspect of her day? He sexually assaults her, of course. Wouldn’t anyone?

But wait! At that moment, passing by, is a young, handsome man dressed in a Santa Claus suit. (It’s Christmastime.) He’s named Charles (Nicolas Giraud), and he has a thing for Solweig, and she for him, because one night when it was snowing as prettily as it snows in snowglobes, she, in the midst of breaking up with a boyfriend we’ve never seen, slips in the snow and Charles emerges from a limo to help her up. Like in a fairy tale! He also gives her his phone number, which is subsequently besmirched and made illegible by her bratty 10-year-old brother, whom she is raising alone, so of course she can’t call and make a date and continue along the path of young love. Fortunately, he finds out about her, since her store ID card slips from her purse as she’s leaving a tutoring gig, where the tutee, another bratty thing who thinks it’s cool to talk in hip-hop slang, just happens to be ... wait for it ... Charles’ brother! So now he knows where she works. He can ask her out. Except he delays. He’s wondering: Is she a teacher? Is she a cashier? What is she? And rather than ask, he dresses up as Santa Claus so he can spy on her without revealing himself. But when Mercier attempts to rape her, he reveals himself: he bursts in, head-butts Mercier, gapes at Solweig, then flees.

But wait! Our heroine, who is sweet, pretty and rather self-satisfied for someone with such a shitty job, almost without personality really, has just been revealed as a hugely successful blogger, then assaulted by her scummy boss, then saved by the man of her dreams. What does she do? She follows the man of her dreams into the parking lot to thank him, of course. No no no, that would make too much sense. She follows him out into the parking lot ... to berate him for making her lose her job. Seriously. “Now I’ve lost my job!” she wails. “I’ve lost everything because of you!” Because of him? Because he saved her from rape? From her boss? She can get fired for that?

Besides, doesn’t she get it? A million hits. Talked about on the nightly news. Fomenting a national strike. How can she not see the upside of all of this? Surely it means a book deal. Maybe even a best-seller. Perhaps called, as this film is called, Les tribulations d'une caissière. Because we can see it. We can see it a mile off.

Instead, she berates, she leaves, he follows. He catches up, explains, pleads. She leaves, he follows. He begs, she leaves. She returns. They kiss. I yawn. I squirm. I feel physical pain at the weight of the stupidity of this film on my consciousness.

“Checkout Girl” could’ve been good. Its topic is a relevant one. Many of us have been there. I worked as a cashier for a number of years at a bookstore in Seattle, and I too was driven crazy by the mindless, endless repetition, the sometime-nasty customers, the often insipid management. I once wrote a short story called “Bags” about a cashier who anthropomorphizes the bags he’s supposed to give away; who treats the bags as more human than the customers. It began:

The question about the bags was the penultimate part of an eight-step procedure Scott Widdershins repeated 240 times a day, 4800 times per month, or approximately 28,800 times in his first half year at the Pine Avenue branch of R & R Books. The procedure began with a greeting ("Hello") and segued into a request for a form of payment ("Cash, check, or charge?"); then, while the purchases were being rung up, and though it was not recommended in The R & R Employees Handbook, Scott usually attempted some kind of conversation with the customer (about literature, or the local sports team, or, daringly, politics); afterwards, credit card slip signed, driver's license number confirmed, change given, Scott asked about the bags. "Would you like a bag?" he asked. There were five types at R & R Books—small, medium and large (paper), medium and large (plastic)—and if the answer was affirmative, and once a preference for paper or plastic was sorted out, Scott slipped their purchases into the properly-sized bag, thanked them, and turned to help the next customer coming down the line.

(Sorry about Widdershins.)

“Checkout Girl” has some of that. In her blog posts she writes about the weight of all the goods they scan every day: a ton, she says; an elephant’s worth of stuff. But her posts, at least translated into English, seem too general and obvious to garner any kind of attention, let alone a million hits, let alone the ear of the nation.

But of course it’s a fairy tale.

The biggest part of the fairy tale? That she’s trapped in her job. She’s blonde, with movie-star looks, and a hugely popular forum. What can’t she do? Her checkout mates include a heavyset black woman with two jobs and too many kids; a peppy Muslim girl with two jobs and one kid and another on the way; and a middle-aged white journalist for a nefarious magazine who is trying to uncover misscheckingout.com. When she does, when she exposes Solweig as a star, she, in a sense, releases both white girls from the checkout-girl trap. They go on to better things. The colored girls remain behind. Your fairy tale isn’t everyone’s fairy tale.

Les tribulations d'une caissière” was apparently recommended for the Seattle International Film Festival this year by a sponsor, the French embassy in San Francisco, and for that I’d like to thank them. Because it’s a movie that furthers cultural understanding. It reminds us that French films aren’t always as good as “L’Heure d’ete,” or “Un Prophete,” or “Des hommes et des dieux.” Some are as awful as the worst crap coming out of Hollywood.

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—Jume 1, 2012

© 2012 Erik Lundegaard