by Stephen Holt
The plight of refugees and the topic of immigration in all its permutations are what dominate almost all the films seen this year in that Gallic annual essential, the Rendezous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center which just ended.
I wondered how the attacks in Paris would effect the usually light-hearted Rendezvous and it turned it very serious indeed, as all these films almost prefigure the disaster in one way or the other.
Main among them was Jaques Audiard’s superb “Dheepan” which won the Palme d’Or in Cannes this year and rightly so. “Dheepan” is a very powerful film, beginning as it does in a refugee camp in Sri Lanka, where the conditions are shocking and the refugees want one thing ~ to get out, in this case to France. To be transported they must be a family unit and Dheepan, a former soldier grabs a woman he doesn’t know, who has a young girl SHE doesn’t know, and they all pass themselves off as a family to get to France.
Things get better there, but not much. It’s as though they’ve traded one war for another. They land in a drug-infested Parisian slum, where Dheepan (a searing Antonythasan Jesuthasan) gets a job as a caretaker of these falling-apart buildings and Yalini, the fake wife & mother becomes a maid to a derelict uncle of a drug lord. Kalieaswari Srinivasan gives a heartfelt portrayal of this smart, pretty woman who must navigate her way through living as the wife of a man she doesn’t know or love and the mother of a “daughter” who is just a young girl Claudine Vinasithamby, who also has no family.
The film is in Tamil and in French. And it’s simply incredible. I hope this film gets a wide release stateside. Which is my hope for all these wonderful, important films. Most do not get seen or distributed here. But director’s Audiard’s track record here “Rust & Bone”, “A Prophet”, “The Beat My Heart Skipped”, etc, plus the Palme d’Or bode well for “Dheepan.”
Following the same theme of immigration and trying to settle into a new, strange country, France, we have “Fatima” a sweet riff on motherhood as well as assimilation. Fatima is a middle-aged, divorced single mother living in bourgeois Lyon, where refugee life seems a little better, but not much. An Algerian, Fatima is working also as Dheepan’s “wife” was as a domestic. She is the mother of two daughters who are assimilating much faster and easier than Fatima is. And they speak French more or less fluently.
Arabic is spoken at home. Fatima wears a head-scarf at all times, and her rebellious teenage daughters, do not. Soria Zeroual brings a warmth and caring to the role of Fatima that makes you want to reach out to the screen and hug her. Her older daughter is an aspiring med school student and the other is an out and out brat, who calls her mother “a she-donkey” as Fatima works 16 hours a day to pay for their education. And she begins to wonder if her sacrificing her life for her insolent daughters is worth it.
Fatima is so overworked and constantly tired and worn down by her two jobs, one now as a cleaner in a factory, she falls down a flight of stairs. I screamed.This quietly insistent film beat “Dheepan” to win the Cesar award (France’s Oscar) for Best Film.
In “A Decent Man”, a terrible title for a film that is in French called more accurately “Je Ne Suis Pas Un Salaud,” literally “I am not a bastard!” examines these racial tensions from a different perspective.Eddy, a jobless, ne’er-do-well Frenchman, a bitter alcoholic, whose anti-social behavior has alienated him from his wife and child, gets mugged. Played perfectly by Nicholas Duvauchelle, he wrongly accuses an Arab, Ahmed (Drias Ramdi) who then loses his job, is jailed, etc. As Ahmed’s situation grows worse and worse, Eddy’s gets better. Or does it? Suspenseful and well-acted by all involved, director Emmanuel Finkiel turns expectations on their Parisian heads.
And what is a Rendezous without the presence of at least ONE Catherine Deneuve film? And “Standing Tall” (“La Tete Haute”) is one of her recent best. This time the Grande Dame of French cinema is playing a compassionate Parisian juvenile court judge and the system she’s caught in is as inadequate as you can imagine. Preliminary trials are held in her cramped office, not in a huge court of justice as you’d expect, which gives Deneuve a particularly juicy series of encounters with the troubled teen Malony, played with so much intensity he(Ron Paradot) seems to explode off the screen. And mais oui, Deneuve never loses her classique sang-froid.
There were of course, some duds (“Deux Amis”) and mis-fires (“Parisenne”) and then there was “Bang Gang” which seems to be French for Gang Bang. Or orgy after orgy.Director Eva Husson’s first film had nothing discernibly to do with social issues except how many nude teenagers can you cram into one film? No plot was visible either as her young stars romped through their afternoon delights in the sun-drenched suburbs of Biarritz. It was accidentally shown at the press screening without English sub-titles. But as one journo quipped, “Who needed them?” There was very little dialogue but lots of bare flesh. I’m SURE “Bang Gang” will get a US distributor.