Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Comme un lion/ Main dans la main

Comme un lion (Samuel Collardey - France) 102 minutes

Who, among those of us who love both cinema and football, don’t get the slightest of thrills at the prospect of a combination of the two? Never mind that most films about football tend to be awful; just the idea of the game on the big screen is enough to get the heart racing. Comme un lion, the second feature by French director Samuel Collardey starts off from a promising, topical premise: young African players taken advantage of by unscrupulous agents and then abandoned in Europe when no club shows any interest in them.

Mitri (played by Mitri Attal) is a Senegalese teenager raised by his mother, who is one day selected by a visiting Cameroonian agent to go to France to have trials with big clubs. The hitch is a large amount of money must first be paid up front to cover flights, visas and accommodation. Mitri’s grandmother, who raised him, is promised all manner of riches as a return on the payment, so she reluctantly sells her orchard (and livelihood) and takes a hefty loan from the community sweepstake to make up the shortfall.

Things start going wrong though as soon as Mitri and a handful of other Senegalese hopefuls touch down at Charles de Gaulle. Their visas don’t seem to be in order and though they are soon sorted out, two days later Mitri is brought for a trial at a stadium near Paris (eagle-eyed fans of French football will recognise it as Red Star 93’s Stade Bauer) and promptly abandoned. After a couple of nights sleeping rough, a sympathetic Senegalese woman sets him up with social services, who send him to Montbéliard, in the east of France, home of Peugeot and Sochaux Football Club.

Mitri wrangles his way into a youth side managed by a gruff ex-pro, played by Marc Barbé, and makes it his goal to land a contract with Sochaux. This is where the film gets a great deal more predictable and formulaic. It has the promise to be a probing social drama but Mitri’s problems are resolved remarkably neatly - many of the real African players who have been left stranded in Europe would laugh bitterly at the ease at which he finds help from the State. Marc Barbé, who is one of France’s finest character actors, is wasted in what is essentially a clichéd surrogate-father role. Though based on a true story, the film seems like a real missed opportunity to examine a shameful contemporary phenomenon. It is also a bit irritating to hear Fela Kuti played over the opening credit sequence set in Senegal; Fela is great and all but Senegal, a country 1200 miles from Nigeria, is not exactly a land without music.

Main dans la main - (Valérie Donzelli - France) 90 minutes

Valérie Donzelli and her ex-partner Jérémie Elkaïm team up once again as actor and screenwriter for her third film as director. Her second Declaration of War/La guerre est declarée was one of the surprise hits at the French box-office in 2011. It was based on the real-life illness of their own infant son and was an impressive slice of bracing emotional popular cinema. Main dans la main uses many of the same tropes as the previous film: song-and-dance routines (the film takes its title from a 1980 hit by Elli et Jacno), voice-over and a free-wheeling, risk-taking approach to narrative. Unfortunately, what worked so well for Declaration of War here looks flat and contrived.

The film recounts the unlikely love affair between a young provincial glazier Joachim (Elkaïm) and Hélène, the uptight middle-aged director of the Paris Opera, played by Valérie Lemercier. They are initially bound together by some inexplicable force, which is a lot more annoying than charming, as the filmmakers no doubt expected it to be. Joachim’s sister, played by Donzelli, has reality-TV dancing ambitions of her own, but these are stymied by a freak injury to her dancing partner. She then chooses to live vicariously through her brother, who is now at one remove from the glamour of ballet. It’s a plot device indicative of the film as a whole: it feels forced, arbitrarily imposed on the screenplay. Likewise, the illness that afflicts Hélène’s live-in friend. We take a lot on faith in the film but little of it is convincing. The problem lies, I think, in trying to marry an over-stylised visual aesthetic with a narrative held together by a voice-over; it was a trick tried often by the New Wave, but it runs the risk of appearing contrived. Too often, it looks as if Donzelli is making it up as she goes along.

Main dans la main is not a particularly good film but it is admirable in the way it takes a chance on an unorthodox format for a romantic comedy. Donzelli also appreciates the virtues of both music and dance and visual story-telling. If she manages to make her characters more credible and less pegs of convenience for her narrative needs, she will return to form soon.