In That Girl in Yellow Boots, the heroine, Ruth, a half Indian-half English 20 year old, with huge eyes, has come to India to find her Indian father. Ms. Koechlin’s Ruth is a lovely desperate mixture of Hilary Swank and an earlier, Jean Shrimpton. In addition, Ms. Koechlin is also the screenwriter. Ruth’s search is driven by mementos of her father — one, a family photograph, which includes her mother and sister, and only her father’s hand because her mother has torn the rest of his body out the photo.
Ruth also treasures a seemingly warm and loving letter from her father, from which she has built a fantasy who yearns for her and whom she in turn, yearns for. She feels it is her destiny to find him and be with him. Her constant, intense, driven texts and phone calls to inquiry agents and possible friends, intercut with her seedy cash transactions at her place of business (a massage parlor), and her incessant grooming of her mane of hair, deep shadowed eyes, and lacquered lips, are at the heart of the movie.
Because she is an illegal, a tourist working without authorization, she lives in painful anxiety and desperation. We travel through the maze of bureaucracies with tiny bedraggled little offices piled to impossible heights with tumbling file folders that clearly can never be accessed, and under the table cash transactions (“a donation to the Policeman’s Ball-or anything really”) necessary to navigate, if one wants to, say, “get a visa.”
The heroine’s ability to speak Hindi only gives her extra grief, as it invites sexual attention from virtually every bureaucrat she meets. Even her inquiry agent, with whom at first it appears she has a functional relationship, attempts unsuccessfully to prostitute her to a group of his cronies as a possible payoff for his services. The hunt for her father, which has come to be all that gives her life meaning, is punctuated by the necessities of her profession.
She smiles and smiles, gives massages to portly oily middle aged or elderly men followed by an insistent invitation to a “handshake” or a “happy ending.” (The only one who ever rejects this offer is a manic handsome young drug lord who quickly bolts out of the parlor).
A squirt of oil, washing of hands, moans, gasps, more hand washing. The client hands her a wad of cash, she accepts it, lather, rinse, repeat. Ruth stashes it away to fund her payments to inquiry agents and her periodic travels to towns where her feather may be. At one point, she has her savings stolen by the aforementioned drug lord.
Why did I have such a visceral dislike of this movie? It is because we know from the beginning that this young woman is steadily, rapidly sinking. And she is acquiescing in her downward slide, and she is not going to give up. When Ruth stays away from the parlor for a full day, the madam attempts to get her back on the job immediately, saying that the phones have been ringing off the hook, “Everybody wants you!”
She seems not really to understand her own thoughts or motivations, she uses her youth and beauty to manipulate men, without affect and with a kind of awful resignation, and as though she thought she could not really be touched. Her Indian boyfriend, one of the two people in her life who truly cares for her, (the other being her giggling madam who spends her life on the phone) calls her with some brittle astuteness his “Virgin Mary of the handshake.”
Ruth tries to stay afloat, pure perhaps? Away from it all, she readily allows herself to be used, and abused, sometimes brutally. The quest for her father becomes simply the quest to stay alive in these wild environs, in any way she can.
Given that the official premiere for this film is on September 2, 2011, I will not reveal the ending. But I will say that the crisis, which hinges on the inevitable tragedy of the discovery of Ruth’s father, and the terrible sadness of Ruth’s life, spurred me to leave the film midway through. The film has done well at Venice and Cannes. Mine is doubtless a minority view and it will do well here too!