Category: French Cinema

The Measure of a Man (La loi du marché, France 2015)


The English title for this film misses the political emphasis of the French original, literally ‘the law of the market’. A shame because this is a fine entry to the Official Selection at Leeds International Film Festival and is also touring in the French Film Festival UK.  Vincent Lindon won the Best Actor Award at Cannes for his performance as Thierry.

Thierry is a skilled machinist who lost his job when a factory closed. He is now enduring the bureaucracies inflicted on the unemployed as he seeks a new job. His home life is supportive but his son (Matthieu Shaller) suffers what seems to be Down’s Syndrome. In the course of the film we see Thierry’s encounters with Job Shops, Job Seeker courses, bank interviews and a Skype job application. They seem to be similar to and as oppressive as those in the UK. In the second part of the film he gets employment as a security guard in a hyper-market. We see the brutal procedures , not just for people caught shoplifting, but also for staff breaking the rules. There is a leaving ceremony for a retiring staff member at one point, replete with management rhetoric. In another scene we see a comment to Thierry by a colleague that managers are looking to lay off staff. Then the naked exploitative treatment that the rhetoric concealed.

I thought the handling of this story and the characters was excellent. The director Stéphane Brizé, who also worked on the script with Olivier Garge, has treated the themes admirably. In the Festival Catalogue he is quoted describing his work for the film:

“I wanted to look at and echo the humanity of  a man mad into the cog of brutality of a system. I decided to point the camera on a straight honest type who unfortunately finds himself sidelines and experiencing his own humanity. My starting point was the question: would you do anything for a job, for a permanent contract? …

I spent months doing research and even did an internship as a security guard. Vincent Lindon also spent a good amount of time watching to see how it all works., listening, learning how to peak during interrogations, understanding how these people physically  move around their environment. I also participated in various workshops held at the job centre on CV’s, on job interviews, to capture the reality, to see how the situation builds, to become familiar with the personal journey of a job seeker over 15 months, two years, etc.!”

The film is full of ironies, often quite funny. Some of the audience found the video job interview scene rather funny: for me it was so near the actuality that I could not laugh. And that is true of quite an amount of the film. I noticed that even the audience members who laughed did so less frequently as the film progressed. Parallel to this are the home scenes, full of the warmth and humanity lacking in the world of exploitative labour. The film relies on a low-key style and soundtrack. For much of the time the camera focuses on Thierry, often in  a large close-up, but with the full widescreen still placing him among a setting or other characters.


There is an important earlier scene where Thierry meets his former workmates in a bar where they discuss legal action against the managers of the firm that closed down. Thierry is reluctant: a position that offers a comment on his responses as his situation deteriorates. The film’s ending is ambiguous, a car drives away. I felt that the audience could imagine a compulsory scene [one that the plot appears to make necessary] which would follow this.

I was reminded of The Axe / Le couperet (France, Belgium, Spain, 2005) directed and scripted by Costa-Gavras from the novel by Donald E. Westlake. That film though is farther up the class scale and has a far more sardonic treatment. It is depressing that the film has not had a UK release, if it turns up watch it. Meanwhile The Measure of a Man is held by New Wave Films, so it should be seen around the UK. It is in 2.35:1 and with English subtitles.


All About Them (À trois on y va, France-Belgium 2015)


This film was part of the Official Selection at the Leeds International Film Festival. It is also part of French Film Festival UK (La fête du CINEMA 23), which is touring the country. There are four titles at LIFF, the two still to come are The Big Blue (1988) and The Measure of a Man (2015), both on Thursday November 12th.

This is a very funny but also quite delicate comedy. The French title translates literally as ‘For three shall we go’, but more colloquially as ‘One, two, three – go!’. The three is that classic French relationship, the ménage à trois. This suggests parallels with a range of films including a couple of French classics. However this film has its own distinctive take on the relationship. It works really well, partly due to the excellent performances with Anaiïs Demoustier as Mélodie, Sophie Verbeeck as Charlotte and Félix Moati as Micha. Mélodie is an advocate or lawyer, Micha is a vet and Charlotte is a part-time painter and singer. They are supported by a pretty strong script, excellent cinematography and sound. The film has a number of nice allusions, one is regarding a quotation thought to be Alfred de Musset but which turns out to be Marilyn Monroe.

The film’s director Jérôme Bonnell, was there for a Q&A after the film. This was chaired by Richard Mowe, from the French Film Festival UK. Unfortunately he started off as the end credits of the film were still rolling with the sound  turned off: not a good idea. He also had to repeat the questions from the audience as the microphone did not stretch that far, and I thought he subtly altered a couple of these.

Bonnell first talked about the gestation and production of the film: similar to the quoted interview in the Festival Catalogue:

“The idea of this film lay dormant in my head for ten years. A couple who have an affair with the same person without knowing it. And it’s the enthusiasm of the tenacious producer Edouard Weil that spurred me on with the script, from a story I described to him in just a few words. It was then a surprise when the heart of the film struck me. This often happens: the depth of the story remains undercover emerging slowly during the process of writing, revealing something that’s been buried in us all along. In this case. as I constructed the scenario, what touched me most was the idea that two people . . . were both so in love with a third . . . they would eventually fall in love with each other, remote-controlled by their unconscious, because there would be such a strong shared emotion, mutual empathy would turn into pure and simple love. This story is like a fantasy given the freedom to go beyond all the problems associated with love: lying, betrayal, sadness, jealousy . . . bringing peace where there is usually conflict.”

In response to questions from the audience, who clearly really enjoyed the film, Bonnell praised the cast and their contributions. He emphasised that the film was fiction. And he explained the use of numerous large close-ups in the film which he felt sprang from the nature of the story and the relationships: and he stressed how important were the performances in enabling him to do this.

Plot Spoiler:

The really interesting question concerned the ending. Late in the film the trio realise that there are three affairs going on. Rather than being shocked or feeling betrayed they enjoy a night of love making. In the morning they have to rush to a wedding: this seemed a reference to the British Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). They later leave the wedding reception to spend the night on the beach. In the morning Charlotte departs, leaving Mélodie and Micha together. They wake and find her gone.

Bonnell felt this was the right ending, because it seemed to him that Mélodie and Micha were a couple. He added that he experimented with an earlier ending, but that did not seem right.

I was unconvinced by this explanation. In fact as the film ran I expected the ending earlier, either with shot of the three at traditional wedding in a coastal rural church or on the beach as they happily ran into the sea. I did not find the idea of a ‘couple’ convincing. I did not sense this during the film. As a friend remarked, Charlotte and Mélodie seemed more of a couple than Micha and Mélodie. This also seemed to run contrary to the quotation above.


Bonnell did twice stressed the idea of ‘lying’ in the relationships. This seemed a bit of a misnomer as well. Strictly speaking in the films, whilst the characters are ‘economical with the truth’, [beloved in the British Parliament], they do not lie. And there is no sense of betrayal when they discover each other’s affairs. To be honest, this struck me more typical of British inhibitions that my sense of French mores. I did wonder if this was a producer’s requirement [the production is not dominated by men], I also noticed that a sequence in Paris [the film is set in Lille] was signalled by a shot of Notre Dame.

Bonnell did also remark that he felt that the film could change the characters and their sexual orientation and the story would still work in a parallel fashion. This is so and is one angle that makes the film really interesting.

Ending apart, this is well worth watching and very funny. There is a party sequence where the film turns from the comedy to near farce. At the same time the relationships have an interesting dramatic quality. Mélodie ‘s advocate work involves a suggestive contrast with her personal sexual life.

The film is screening again at LIFF on Tuesday 10th and Wednesday 11th of November Note, it has an 18 Certificate in the UK: the BBFC over the top as usual.

Un poison violent (Love Like Poison, France 2010)

Anna (Clara Augarde) enjoys spending time with her grandfather (Michel Galabru)

Anna (Clara Augarde) enjoys spending time with her grandfather (Michel Galabru)

Here is an example of auteurist cinema which justifies the French approach to nurturing young talent. After a series of short films over a period of six years Katell Quillévéré (then aged 30) directed this, her first feature, in 2010. Written with Mariette Désert, the film features a riveting performance by Clara Augarde as a 14 year-old girl at a crucial moment in her young life. Winning the Prix Jean Vigo after a Cannes screening for Un poison violent, Quillévéré and Désert went on to make Suzanne in 2013, this time achieving several César nominations. Successful careers have been established with the hurdle of the ‘second feature’ having been cleared to acclaim.

Both the films appear to have had UK releases which I missed and I’m grateful to BBC2 for a late night screening of Un poison violent which I recorded. An auteurist film in this context means a feature which receives funding support from a range of French public funding bodies. In this case a budget of €2.32 million was put together by the independent production company Les Films du Bélier with pre-sales and co-production investment from Arte France Cinéma, pre-sales from Canal + and Ciné Cinéma, and backing from the Brittany and Pays de la Loire regional funds (details from Cineuropa). Similar deals in the UK for first time writer-directors would probably mean a much smaller budget and the need to focus on a genre narrative of some sort. Un poison violent is arguably a ‘coming of age’ story but the approach is much more about character than narrative drive.

The film’s title derives from a Serge Gainsbourg song (from a soundtrack album Anna with Jean-Claude Brialy in 1967) and Katell Quillévéré chose to make the connection because:

“. . . . a Serge Gainsbourg song, [which] uses this expression to define love. In a more profound way, to me it refers to everything that makes us feel like we’re alive, including things that can make us suffer. It’s a contradictory impulse that guides our relation to the world. For Anna, the heroine, the “poison” is in relation to the freedom she is going to experience, which is inherently a form of solitude.” (See the interview on the Artificial Eye website for the UK DVD)

Anna with her mother in church.

Anna with her mother in church.

Anna starts her summer holidays, returning to a family house in Brittany from a Catholic boarding school where she has been sent because her parents are in the process of splitting up. Her mother is in the house alongside her father-in-law, Anna’s grandfather, and an older couple whose relationship to Anna is less clear. In this ‘bourgeois provincial family’ (the director’s description) Anna’s mother has turned to her beliefs and to a young local priest (an interesting performance by Italian actor Stefano Cassetti ‘cast against type’). Anna herself is due to be confirmed and the film narrative begins in the local church. I was surprised to be shown a packed church with some glorious choral singing – far too beautiful a sound for any church service I’ve ever witnessed! In fact music of all kinds (mainly folk music) plays a major role in the film alongside excellent camerawork (Tom Harari, another young filmmaker on one of his first feature film jobs) and use of landscape and mise en scène.

Anna with Fr François

Anna with Fr François (Stefano Cassetti)

The ‘poison of freedom’ quoted by Quillévéré manifests itself in Anna’s emotional reaction to her parents’ separation and the expectation of her commitment to Christ and the Catholic church. She struggles with how she feels and is drawn into two contrasting relationships – one is with her elderly grandfather, a wonderful old rogue played by the comic actor Michel Galabru and the other with a local boy Pierre. These are healthy relationships in which Anna is introduced to all kinds of pleasures which are probably not what the church might approve of for confirmation candidates. However, the use of music and camerawork/mise en scène suggests that Anna feels an erotic surge in church as much as with her two companions – she faints twice during formal services. The scenes with Grandpa and with Pierre work very well because of their sense of realism. Michel Galabru was in his late 80s when he took the role and Youen Leboulanger-Gourvil as Pierre is shorter than Anna – creating that familiar couple of young teenagers in which the girl is more fully developed. Katell Quillévéré again on how she cast the film:

“I wanted earthy people, not ‘models’. The religious theme called for bodies that personified their character powerfully, otherwise the film’s stance would seem redundant. I only chose actors having a body filled with life and sexual energy, for that is precisely what the Catholic religion tries to smother, and something that a camera will immediately capture.” (DVD interview)

Anna and Pierre kiss . . .

Anna and Pierre kiss . . .

Clara Augarde as Anna was also a non-professional actor at this point. She plays the role so wonderfully mixing a genuine sense of innocence with a maturity that suggests she knows what is happening in terms of her developing sexuality and desire that I confess to perhaps neglecting some of the other cast members in focusing entirely on what happens to her. Quillévéré argues that the film is also about the family and that sometimes Anna’s story must make way for an exploration of what is happening to her mother (played by the Portuguese actor Lio), the young priest and her grandfather (who faces his own death as he relishes Anna’s journey of self-discovery).

The director discusses her story in terms of other “pious young women” (the interviewer’s term) in French film and literature, stating that she loves the heroines of Georges Bataille. The interviewer suggests that this interest in religion and desire is unusual in ‘young French cinema’ (i.e. among younger filmmakers). I certainly can’t remember too many recent French films like Un poison violent and I found it a riveting watch. I’m surprised it didn’t make more of an impact in the UK or North America. 

UK trailer (with Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ – in a choral version):

Samba (France 2014)

Samba (Omar Sy) is interviewed by two migrant support workers, Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) (centre) and (right) Manu (Izïa Higgling)

Samba (Omar Sy) is interviewed by two migrant support workers, Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) (centre) and (right) Manu (Izïa Higgling)

Samba is the follow-up to the second biggest global hit in French film history, Intouchables (2011) – a film I’ve been meaning to write about for some time. Perhaps watching Samba will prompt me to do so. The same writing-directing duo (Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano) and the same star (Omar Sy) feature in this $20 million budget film. Omar Sy is the French TV star who became a surprise film star in Intouchables – as an African-French character given a lead role in an industry not noted for its representations of Africans in mainstream films. In Samba he plays a Senegalese migrant who has been in France for 10 years but who has still not achieved legal residency.

I missed this film during its (very brief) run in UK cinemas but I still wanted to see it even though I could see the flaws in Intouchables. I was worried by some of the negative reviews but in the event I did enjoy Samba – but I can understand some of the critical responses. Part of the problem is that the film mixes several distinct genres in a way that might certainly confound some audiences and which provides good ammunition for critics.

Samba is both a comedy and a drama. It also mixes a quite complex visual style – a pre-credits sequence aping Scorsese (in his Goodfellas period) – with both absurdist and slapstick comedy and some social realism. In genre terms it includes elements of the buddy movie mixed with the rom-com and social commentary. All in all it is a strange mixture but its good points shouldn’t get lost. It isn’t really very helpful to dismiss films because they try to do something different.

'Wilson' (Tahir Rahim) and Samba

‘Wilson’ (Tahir Rahim) and Samba

Headlining alongside Omar Sy are Charlotte Gainsbourg and Tahar Rahim. Gainsbourg provides the ‘romance-comedy-drama’ potential and Rahim enables the buddy movie. Gainsbourg’s character is a marketing executive who has ‘burned out’ and has decided to take a sabbatical as a support worker for a refugee/migrant charity. This is how she meets Samba (Sy) who has been imprisoned and given an order to leave France despite 10 years illegal residency and steady employment in kitchen work, albeit with a struggle to get from dish-washing to food preparation. Rahim’s character, another migrant with a similar history, eventually teams up with Samba in a series of casual jobs leading to various comic escapades. Although the narrative resolution suggests a ‘feelgood’ film, the ending is to some extent still ‘open’ and it is triggered by one of the important debates around identity and legal status. The resolution is only possible after a tragic event. The style of the film’s ending also echoes the ‘excess’ of the opening, using popular songs under a slow motion image sequence much as the whole narrative has used songs and ‘mood’ music throughout.

Samba and Alice

Samba and Alice

So what is wrong with the film? Ashley Clark, currently one of the UK’s most respected critics of African-American and Black British films, states what he sees as a fundamental flaw directly in his indieWire review:

Without apparent irony, Nakache and Toledano seem to think that the work-related burnout of a white middle-class woman, while of course unpleasant in its own way, is equivalent to the byzantine existential crisis of living job-to-job, hand-to-mouth as an undocumented immigrant (in a country with well-documented right-leaning tendencies on domestic policy.)

It’s hard to argue with that view and Clark does recognise that the film is genuinely trying to widen its potential audience, but, he argues, the narrative needs more grit and more background about Samba and his family – mother is back in Senegal and Samba lives with a (legally resident) uncle. Clark argues that Sy ‘soars above’ the material. I agree but perhaps this is also part of the problem? Sy is such a charismatic performer that audiences may simply be entertained by his playing rather than led to think through the social problems that Samba faces. Something similar was also true in Intouchables.

Omar tries to 'disguise' his identity with suit and tie and briefcase to avoid random police checks.

Omar tries to ‘disguise’ his identity with suit and tie and briefcase to avoid random police checks.

The strength of the film is that it does reveal the dreadful state of immigration policy in France and the absurd bureaucracy that attempts to control it. I’m not sure it is better in the UK – represented in the superior Stephen Frears film Dirty Pretty Things (UK 2002) with Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead. The other issue at stake here is the star turn by Omar Sy in a mainstream film. His scenes with Charlotte Gainsbourg do fleetingly remind us of her notorious scenes with two (anonymous) African men in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Part II (Denmark/Bel/Fra/Ger 2014). I mention this only to ask how much of a breakthrough it is for French mainstream cinema as distinct from art cinema to see a white woman with a black man on screen? Tahar Rahim’s presence in the film (which I very much enjoyed in spite of some reviewers’ misgivings) reminds us that Maghrebi French actors have not faced the same problems in French cinema (and international cinema) as West African French actors.

In Sight and Sound (May 2015), leading French cinema scholar Ginette Vincendeau offers a critique similar to Ashley Clark’s. She makes a good point in pointing out that like Intouchables, Samba involves “the pairing of an under-privileged-but-vigorous black with privileged-but-etiolated white (Gainsbourg at her most annoyingly wan)”. I disagree about Gainsbourg but it’s an important observation. Too often film narratives that should be about the black character end up diverting our attention to the trials of the white characters. But Vincendeau also picks out two specific scenes as ‘unworthy’ of the actors or supporting her argument above. The first sees Sy and Rahim in a take-off of a well-known soft drinks ad and the second sees “white people attempt, not very well, to dance to black music (in this case Bob Marley)”. I think this is going too far. The first may be a ‘clunky ‘ visual joke (but still funny), but the second is something that has happened throughout the last 50 years in the UK. Is it really a clumsy and at times dubious representation of racial difference? Perhaps it’s different in France? We have to grant Samba some slack as a mainstream movie. Yes, it could be a lot ‘better’, but it isn’t that bad and overall it does something useful.

International trailer: