Thursday, October 19, 2006

Two French Films

Two French films that have been generating pages of press coverage since their releases last month. The first is a film that has been hailed by the French media as a revival of the Nouvelle Vague spirit. It is the third film by Breton director Christophe Honoré, Dans Paris, which stars two bright lights of the French film industry Romain Duris and Louis Garrel as brothers bumming around in their father's apartment in the 16th arrondissement, a swish pad with a balcony view of the Eiffel Tower. Garrel is the younger, a student with a penchant for picking up girls by charming them on the street - a male Parisian feature that is much more endearing onscreen than in real life - while Duris is undergoing a deep depression after getting dumped by his girlfriend, with whom he had moved to the countryside. Now back in Paris, he spends most of his time in bed, refusing to eat and crying at regular intervals.

Their father is a writer of sorts, who barely indulges their fecklessness and worries periodically about the sanity and safety of his older son. Nothing much happens in the film, as in many French arthouse productions, and there is minimal character development by the time we get to the end. The debts to the Nouvelle Vague are so large as to potentially overwhelm the film or render it an annoyingly postmodern homage: the improvised playfulness of the characters indoors is straight out of the Godard of À Bout de souffle and Une Femme est une femme (if one closes one's eyes one can see a palimpsest of Jean-Claude Brialy wheel about the apartment on his ten-speed racer), while the chance meetings on the familiar streets and bridges are reminiscent of Truffaut and Eustache. The lengthy inconsequential dialogue could have been written by Eric Rohmer, or even Jacques Rivette. But the film never seems strained; even if the film's raw material can in no way be called fresh, there is a briskness and charm to it that allows it to shake free the whiff of déjà-vu that does it darnedest to dog it from the beautifully simple opening credits.

Even the presence of Garrel, the sort of spoiled bourgeois man-boy Parisian that I particularly loathe, with his eminently punchable face and ridiculously bouffant hairstyle, fails to sour things. He has been dreadful in two awfully pretentious films in the past couple of years, Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers and his father Philippe's Les Amants irréguliers, both films set during the May '68 riots but here he is just about tolerable. Duris is, as ever, both subtle and touching, bringing a quiet grace to a role that he could easily have drowned in petulant overacting. A point to make about the film's spirit is the condition I was in when I saw it: sleepy from lack of sleep the night before I was having trouble following all the French dialogue, which is both heavily accented and fast. So I decided to stop straining to listen and to simply absorb what I could hear. I feel I missed very little of importance but the film's impression was still strong. I look forward to seeing it again and listening more attentively.

A completely different film, and still top of the French box-office after three weeks is Rachid Bouchareb's Indigènes. Bouchareb has been working for more than ten years as a producer of interesting independent films such as the work of Bruno Dumont and Ziad Doueiri's excellent Lebanese Civil War comedy West Beirut, here he turns director to tell the oft-forgotten tale of North African servicemen who fought as volunteers to free the 'motherland' France during the Second World War. There are many in the English-speaking world who never tire of sneering at the French record in the Second World War and the way they capitulated to the Nazi invasion, though had the UK shared a land border with Germany, as ill-equipped as they were at the time they would have been just as easily overwhelmed. The man who knew this most at the time was Winston Churchill. To dismiss the French part in their own liberation is similarly disingenuous; the taking of Marseille and the advance through Savoy towards Alsace and Lorraine was a vital part in the liberation of France and opening up the route to Berlin. And, as this film reminds us, many of those involved were Arabs from the colonies (and servicemen from the Black African colonies too).

The film gathers the four-biggest French Arab male actors, and the ensemble cast carried off the Best Actor award at Cannes this year: Sami Naceri, who is most famous for his starring roles in the Taxi films; Jamel Debbouze, the darling of new French comedy, and who has been seen in Amelie Poulain and Luc Besson's recent A.N.G.E.L.A.; Roschdy Zem, probably one of the best French actors of his generation, who has played everything from boxers to social workers to cops to drug dealers and who often lifts the most mediocre of urban dramas with his presence. Then there is Sami Bouiajila, probably the least known of the quartet, who has acted in films by Arnaud Desplechin and Michel Blanc among others but who is hardly the sort to carry a film on his own. Here however as the Corporal Abdelkadder, he steals the show, being the noble, diligent type that sees to the needs of his men, particularly the illiterate Algerian peasant played by Debbouze, while also needling his pied noir Sergeant Martinez, with whom he has a troubled but mutually-respectful relationship. Abdelkadder is also unafraid of voicing his opinions on independence for the Arab and African colonies, equating the fight to free France from Nazism with the desire for freedom for his own people.

It is an old-fashioned war film, unremarkable for the most part in its plotting and scripting; many of the characters are a bit shopworn but the novelty of seeing Arab protagonists in a historical setting from which they have been systematically hidden generates enough interest to ignore these shortcomings. Critics might claim that the film's agenda is politically correct, observing racial quotas for its own purposes but the film admirably eschews a simplistic castigation of the ungrateful French. Though the racism prevalent at the time is detailed in the censoring of Messouad's (Zem) love letters to his Marseillaise lover, the film engages in no retrospective reshuffling of the relationship between the colonised and the French, one which was uneasy but often one of genuine respect on the part of the Arabs.

The film in its simplicity and its overfamiliarity makes it somewhat like Saving Private Ryan, though the pedantry of Spielberg's brutal battle scenes is missing. Bouchareb's battle scenes are thrilling and well-mounted, and the finale in a deserted village in Alsace is a superb conclusion. The film's closing title card reminds us that pensions paid to soldiers from the former colonies were frozen by none other than de Gaulle himself in 1959, and that despite a Council of State edict in 1999 that the pensions be reinstated, successive French governments have failed to do so. That French political parties can live with such a shoddy treatment of men and women who risked their lives for the freedom of France is shocking.

The film also offers a poignant reminder of what has been lost in the past sixty years. A grudging respect has since vanished due to a bloody war of independence in Algeria, followed by the rise of the far right in France and the country's indifference to the fate of its immigrant populations. These days French Arabs face the worst type of racial discrimination, the worst of probably any country in Western Europe, being tagged with every form of epithet from thief to misogynist. As Debbouze, who is an astute social commentator as well as a great comedian said in a recent interview in Le Nouvel Observateur: 'When you were a kid, you had to prove you weren't a drug addict or a scooter thief. Now it's more difficult. Young people have to prove they're not terrorists, that they don't beat their wives, that they're not anti-semites." The success of Indigènes is heartening, and hopefully it will be replicated internationally, which may go some way to making Europeans view the Muslims among them with a bit more humanity.