Isabelle Huppert stars in Patricia Mazuy’s offbeat drama which charts an unlikely friendship between two women

Visiting Hours

Source: Cannes Film Festival

‘Visiting Hours’

Dir: Patricia Mazuy. France. 2024. 108mins

Two women from very different worlds bond over an unlikely connection — both of them have a husband serving time in the same prison — in Visiting Hours, a study of class and economic disparity that avoids certain narrative familiarities while succumbing to others. Veteran French director Patricia Mazuy reunites with her The Kings Daughters (2000) star Isabelle Huppert, who plays a bourgeois wife who takes an interest in Hafsia Herzi’s working-class dry-cleaner, although the reason for her fascination is, intriguingly, never explicitly laid out. The two characters become friends, although both women’s ulterior motives give this uneven but compelling film its tense energy.

The lead performances are agreeably muted

Visiting Hours premieres in Directors’ Fortnight, and Huppert’s status as a cinematic icon will help garner this intimate drama sufficient attention. Solid reviews should lead to further festival play, with the film catering to older arthouse crowds. Les Films du Losange will release the picture in France. 

For several years, cultured Alma (Huppert) has regularly visited her husband Christopher (Magne-Havard Brekke), a former brain surgeon, in prison. During her latest trip to the Bordeaux jail, she encounters Mina (Herzi), a struggling mother of two, who is rebuffed from seeing her husband Nasser (Lionel Dray) because she isn’t on the schedule due to a clerical error. Impressed with Mina’s fiery assertiveness, the wealthy Alma invites Mina to stay in her large mansion so she will not have to trek back to far-off Narbonne before returning to the prison the following day.

Alma’s act of kindness begins a friendship between the two women and soon Alma tries to improve Mina’s life and that of her young children, finding Mina a job in Bordeaux and playing babysitter to the kids. But what gives Visiting Hours its enigmatic edge is how Mazuy, whose last picture was 2022’s Saturn Bowling, resists the pat moralising one might expect. This is not a drama in which rich Alma learns important life lessons from salt-of-the-earth Mina. Rather, a tacit, pragmatic understanding develops between the two characters in which each recognises what they are getting out of this friendship. For the lonely, childless Alma, Mina and her brood represent a fix-it project, while Mina wants Alma’s help despite slightly resenting being seen as a charity case. And yet, there is a level of mystery surrounding how much genuine affection there is between the women — or if each character sees in the other merely a means to an end.

The lead performances are agreeably muted, with neither woman falling neatly into assumed socioeconomic categories. Huppert plays Alma as strong-willed, so it is not surprising that the character admires Mina’s defiant nature. But, at the same time, Huppert gives this wealthy, bored wife an air of privilege that distorts how she sees everything. When Alma glibly comments that Mina is too negative, Mina’s silent reaction is telling — it is easy for Alma to be optimistic when life has been so easy.

Adding to the tension is the fact that Christopher’s shockingly short six-year prison term is for a violent hit-and-run drunk driving accident, in which he paralysed one pedestrian and killed another. His stature in the community afforded him a lenient sentence, while Nasser will be away for longer because of a meagre-in-comparison jewellery-store burglary.

As Alma and Mina’s lives become more intertwined, Mina and Nasser’s past returns to present problems. Namely, one of Nasser’s criminal partners, Yacine (William Edimo), comes looking for part of the burglary haul he believes Nasser still has, threatening Mina if she doesn’t determine the loot’s whereabouts. That late-reel thriller element risks upsetting Visiting Hours’ modest, thoughtful tone, leading to a plot development that is not executed as convincingly as that which came before.

Additionally, while Visiting Hours sidesteps simplistic commentary about the haves and have-nots, Mazuy occasionally allows the story to become predictable. There is nothing surprising about Alma’s growing displeasure with her aloof husband, who was cheating on her before his imprisonment, and likewise Mina’s fierce devotion to the well-meaning Nasser feels like a too-tidy contrast to the wealthy couple’s emotional poverty. 

But, for the most part, Visiting Hours exudes an intelligence and curiosity about the strange alliances we form to fill in the gaps in our life. Alma and Mina would have never met under any other circumstance, but they emerge from their encounter changed — in some ways the audience would have imagined, and in others more surprising.

Production companies: Rectangle Productions, Picseyes

International sales: Les Films du Losange,    

Producers: Alice Girard, Xavier Pleche

Screenplay: Pierre Courrege, Francois Begaudeau, Patricia Mazuy

Cinematography: Simon Beaufils

Production design: Dorian Maloine 

Editing: Mathilde Muyard

Music: Amine Bouhafa

Main cast: Isabelle Huppert, Hafsia Herzi, Magne-Havard Brekke, Lionel Drey