Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Les apaches & Grand Central

Les apaches (Thierry de Peretti – France) 82 minutes

Grand Central (Rebecca Zlotowski – France/Austria) 95 minutes

Thierry de Peretti’s Les apaches, set in Corsica, using many non-professional local actors, has been praised in France for venturing beyond the usual tourist clichés about the island. That’s as may be though it is strange few of these people have pointed out that another cliché about Corsica that is every bit as potent is crime. And Les apaches is a film that, while it may only stumble into the crime genre, shows a society which is, well, imbued with dodginess. That is neither a fault, nor a disobliging observation – de Peretti, a native Corsican, knows his native island well, and one of the strengths of his debut film is the way it builds a tense, taut thriller from something unassuming.

The film begins, with a vague echo of Sophia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, as a quintet of teenagers party in the vacant Porto Vecchio holiday home of some rich Parisians, a home that is taken care of by the father of one of them, Aziz (Aziz El Hadachi). In a brilliantly filmed scene, the youngsters help themselves to the drinks cabinet, swim in the pool and then run off with a load of booty from the luxury home. The following day Aziz has a touch of remorse and decides to return the stuff, but he finds the Parisians have arrived. His father’s job is at risk so he comes clean and delivers the goods back to their owners. Missing though is a vintage rifle, which one of his friends, François-Jo (François-Joseph Cullioli) has secreted and intends to sell. He, in turn, is worried that Aziz might dob him off under pressure from his father’s boss (this being Corsica, the police are not invited to help). He gathers two of the others, Hamza (Hamza Mezziani) and Jo (Joseph Ebrard), to try and lean on Aziz, but their teenage inexperience shows and things take a messy turn.

Les apaches is a rare crime film that casts its drama in a behaviourist light – we see how unplanned, disorganised crime germinates from the littlest things and soon takes on a life of its own. Though slickly filmed as you might expect a thriller to be, there is this ‘inner compartment’ of a gauche teen comedy that renders the film all the more maddeningly horrific. All that unfolds need not happen and you feel like grabbing its young protagonists and giving them a good shake. But that in itself might be foolhardy. With very little means and a rather mundane premise, de Peretti has crafted one of the best French films of the year.

Grand Central has nothing to do with the New York railway station (‘central’ is the French for power station – film is set in a nuclear installation) but the allusion is deliberate. Rebecca Zlotowski’s second feature is brimming with references to American cinema and culture, some of which sit oddly within the narrative, rather like the global English, with words lifted from multiple registers, that is spoken by many French people. There is a trailer park, a rodeo bar and an air of 1970s blue collar Hollywood cinema, such as The Deerhunter, Norma Rae and, naturally, Blue Collar. While Zlotowski has a tendency to the overwrought (particularly her habit of punctuating the action with long sequences set to music that seems culled from different films) Grand Central is a decent effort at portraying the world of work, particularly in an environment (nuclear) one seldom sees onscreen.

Tahar Rahim plays Gary Manda, a young unskilled drifter, who comes to a nuclear power station to take up contract waste disposal work. He is taken under the wing of an existentialist foreman (Olivier Gourmet, who warns him ‘it’s a constant battle that you never shake off’) and a gregarious but menacing hard man, Toni (Dénis Ménochet – the French farmer who serves the glass of milk to Christophe Waltz in Inglourious Basterds). The work is well paid by industrial standards but is hazardous in the extreme, with the workers not afforded any of the security or benefits of permanent staff, and they are even forced to monitor their own radiation exposure levels, on pain of not being rehired.

Gary gets involved in a none-too-secret affair with Toni’s fiancée, Karole (Léa Seydoux, once again surprisingly convincing as a proletarian after Ursula Meier’s Sister), which risks causing some trouble within the plant, which already has an alarmingly high rate of industrial accidents. Though both Rahim and Seydoux are excellent, as ever, their relationship is one of the least convincing things about the film, seemingly tagged on to give the film wider audience appeal. Where Grand Central does excel is in the scenes set in the power plant, each of which are tinged with impending doom. Though the film is by no means predictable, it is still rather low on surprises. Nonetheless, Grand Central is worth a watch, especially for those who rarely get a glimpse of the less bourgeois end of French cinema.