While its inexplicably poor English title doesn’t do it justice, Female Agents (2008) is a compelling World War II spy film about, well, female agents. (I guess someone decided Les Femmes de l’ombre—“Women of the Shadows”—was too eloquent?) Inspired by real events, the film depicts a daring operation to rescue a British geologist from the clutches of the Nazis before he can reveal the Allies’ D-Day invasion plans. Executing the mission: a Dirty Dozen-like crew of female agents, led by the daring Louise Desfontaines (Sophie Marceau), an experienced SOE officer. Louise recruits former cabaret dancer Suzy Desprez (Marie Gillain), ex-prostitute and convicted murderer Jeanne Faussier (Julie Depardieu), and untested demolitions expert Gaelle Lemenech (Déborah François) to parachute behind enemy lines. There they’ll rendezvous with radio operator Maria Luzzato (Maya Sansa) and, together with other French Resistance operatives, liberate the imperiled geologist from a German army hospital—all before a shrewd Nazi officer named Heindrich (Moritz Bleibtreu) can interrogate the truth out of the scientist and uncover the Allies’ invasion plans.
Female Agents is loaded with quality: it’s got production values to burn, gripping action, interesting historical detail, and first-class verisimilitude. But its primary asset is that it’s a war epic with a refreshing focus on female characaters. Certain directorial choices, alas, veer into unnecessary male gaze; in this respect it occasionally reminded me of Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book. But by and large it’s a moving, tragic portrait of brave women coming together under impossible circumstances, anchored by superb performances from the entire cast—especially Marceau, who is stellar. Its brutal, heartfelt narrative is reminiscent of Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, a comparison I wouldn’t make lightly; certainly not as eloquent or as shattering, but derived from the same powerful stock.