Early winter Paris. Unmarried French tax adviser Catherine (43) is ordered to take ‘gardening leave’ after a series of unpleasant disagreements at work. Paid to trace the minutia of corporate tax legislation, she has become paralysingly obsessed with ‘future proofing’ all decisions. Having not taken a holiday for many years Catherine makes an uncharacteristically impulsive decision to leave Paris for a holiday to visit her old friend Aude, who now lives in Recife (Brazil).
Aude (45) and her husband Richar (50) live in one of a string of glass and steel towers which dominate the beautiful coastline. Behind this strip where the rich live, sprawl large shanty towns which house the poor who service those on the coast. Despite Aude’s determination to initiate her into the comforts of beach life, Catherine becomes increasingly disenchanted by the sterility of life in Aude’s privileged ghetto. A chance encounter with Gil,19, persuades her to set out on an adventure to seek her own pleasures.
In what seems to her a reassuringly clear transaction, Catherine presents Gil with gifts in return for sexual favours and they start to develop a mutually dependent relationship. She gradually slips away from her life as a tourist and spends more and more time in Gil’s world. At times striking her with its parallels to her own work, Gil’s livelihood depends on his talent for navigating muddy waters, yet in his case on instinct. His quiet confidence in doing so adds to his attraction, and lends a liberating spark to their relationship as Catherine finds herself physically awakening and emboldened.
Feeling increasingly drawn to the agility of this community, Catherine befriends some street children on the beach. The kids sell drinks and snacks to holiday-makers for Conceição (60) a disabled Brazilian woman who runs a tiny kiosk. When Conceição is threatened with eviction Catherine is moved to pay for the lease on the kiosk. Catherine’s holiday is coming to an end, and she is terrified by the prospect of returning home.
She falls out with Aude and Richard who are very judgmental about her relationship with Gil and defiantly decides to stay in Brazil. Catherine organises a pension deal with her employers and sells everything she owns in France. Ignoring all warnings she is determined to build a life with Gil, he is keen to set up a business and she signs over a substantial part of her savings to help him do so.
Despite his convincing pitch the business fails as Gil spends the money and becomes bored with Catherine. In an attempt to keep him close, she encourages him to open her house to his friends; but is unprepared for the damaged and unpredictable characters who make up Gil’s closest circle. Becoming increasingly intimidated and overwhelmed Catherine loses patience with Gil as the delicate balance of their relationship deteriorates and Gil begins publicly humiliating her to entertain his visitors. A line is crossed when Gil persuades Catherine to get involved in a robbery of sacred paintings from a local church. Angered by the violent outcome of this expedition she threatens to go to the police and he leaves.
Shell-shocked and disorientated, Catherine starts drinking heavily and dressing more and more provocatively. Carnival explodes on the streets as her life spins out of control. After several days of hedonistic excess she finds Gill on the streets with a young woman. Utterly betrayed and rejected she drunkenly taunts him to kill her. Sickened by her neediness, Gil dowses Catherine with kerosene, tosses a match and makes his escape. Catherine begins a long process of convalescence through which she gradually accepts her severely scarred face.
Now penniless, Catherine returns to the beach where she learns that Conceição has died, leaving her as the default owner of the kiosk which the children depend on for their survival. Left with no other option Catherine moves into the kiosk and runs it with the help of the children. At times, in a certain light, as young men pass by on the beach, a gesture, a profile against the sun and time folds back on its self for a second, but it isn’t Gil. Overtime, worn by the rhythm of this precarious life at the edge of the sea, necessity has finally released her from her fear of a future shaped by her own decisions.