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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m not sure how I missed this transnational production but, as the UK release schedule expands, smaller releases like this one appear only fleetingly in cinemas before going straight to DVD. I came across The Tree as one of the two earlier features by Julie Bertuccelli, director of School of Babel. (The film did actually close the Cannes Film Festival in 2010 but it was out of competition and therefore not much discussed in the international media.) There are several reasons why The Tree is worth watching. These include the production context, the presentation of Australian landscapes, the direction of child actors and another chance to catch a performance by Charlotte Gainsbourg.
The Artificial Eye Region 2 DVD carries an interesting ‘making of’ documentary (including a sequence of ant wrangling) in which we learn that Ms Bertuccelli was eager to adapt the Italo Calvino novel The Baron in the Tree, but then discovered that this wasn’t possible and started to look for other stories with a tree as a central character. When she read the novel Our Father Who Art in the Tree by Judy Pascoe she was immediately attracted and, with her producer Yael Fogiel, contacted the Australian adaptation rightsholder Sue Taylor. The three women got on well and an Australian-French co-production was organised with funders from both countries, including local film commissions and TV stations.
The original novel focuses on a little girl who experiences the death of her father and then believes that his spirit has in some way taken up residence in a large tree adjacent to the family home. While the rest of her family have their own ways of dealing with the father’s death, Simone climbs into the tree where she can ‘hear’ her father’s voice. Julie Bertellucci decided to change the central narrative by focusing on Dawn, the mother played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and her close relationship with Simone (aged 8 in the film). The other three siblings are three brothers, two older and one only a toddler. Since the oldest boy is studying for school-leaving exams there is a wide age range in the family and the five characters have very different perspectives. The shift to the mother-daughter relationship rather than simply the child’s view is interesting in the spin it gives to the film’s address to its audience. One of the commentators on the book’s appeal writes about Simone’s narration as being similar to Scout’s in To Kill a Mockingbird. Shifting to the mother-daughter scenario makes the film more consciously about ‘women’s lives’. Julie Bertuccelli adapted the novel herself and with her female producers and a mother-daughter central pair this was just too much female input for one disgruntled male spectator on IMDB.
The story is located in rural Queensland and the film was a long time in preparation as the director searched for the perfect tree. She didn’t want to design/construct a tree. Her documentary background convinced her that the tree had to be ‘real’. Eventually, after two years and many tree viewings the team found a giant Moreton Bay Fig tree (in the novel I think it’s a flame tree of some kind) in Bunnah in Queensland. Standing on its own with an interesting view of the local landscape, the house was constructed around the tree – providing one narrative thread since these fig trees have enormous root systems that threaten drainage pipes and the structural safety of the house itself. At the start of the film we see that the father’s job entails physically moving the wooden houses in the district by low loader, a kind of ironic marker for later events.
Bertuccelli’s focus on the mother leads to what many will see as a highly conventional narrative – she starts another relationship ‘too soon’ after her husband’s death. Yet this story is also a way of commenting on her marriage – she hasn’t worked for the past 17 years (or perhaps not at all) and she knows few people beyond the local women who are mostly older. She needs to get a job and to see something of the world beyond the house. By contrast Simone retreats towards the tree. The core of the narrative offers us an emotional narrative driven by the child’s imagination which draws on ‘arboreal magic’ and the potential power of the wider environment – the drought which threatens all the vegetation and the violent tropical storms. The story in this sense relates to both specifically Australian stories about the bush (I think that there is only one short sequence in which a boy who may be part of a local indigenous community appears with some wildlife) and to more general dramatic narratives in which families face natural disasters. So, how does a non-native Australian director fare in the environment? From my perspective she does well. The ‘reality’ of the tree certainly works. She tells us that the storm was photographed on the spur of the moment when it happened – rather than through preparation and design.
But the film ultimately stands or falls on the central relationship and the two actors. I always find Charlotte Gainsbourg compelling but as Simone, Morgana Davies is remarkable. Her language (and delivery) sometimes sounds like an older child but her mix of strength and vulnerability seems absolutely right. The narrative may be slight in terms of action/events but it is rich in meanings and emotions and the film worked for me overall. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian found it to be an “outrageously twee, spiritual and supercilious drama”. That seems a bizarre comment. Julie Bertuccelli shows how each of the children behave differently in response to their father’s/husband’s sudden death. Dawn is not the mother who bravely holds the family together. The children have strength in their own responses and though there are conventional aspects to the story concerning Dawn and the man she starts a relationship with, overall the narrative remains open-ended. The film is a form of family melodrama with elements of both fantasy and realism.
My only surprise was the size of the budget at €7.7 million. This is a ‘large’ budget by UK standards. French productions have become more expensive in recent years, partly through the inflated fees paid to actors. Charlotte Gainsbourg is certainly a star actor, but I’d be surprised if it was her fee that pushed up the cost. On reflection, it seems to me that the money went on preparation and an extended shoot. It was Bertuccelli’s first time directing children and as well as many retakes for the younger children, she seems to have encouraged the children to be a family on the shoot and not only in front of the cameras. I think that this shows in the finished film as they are believable as a family. Unfortunately the film was not successful in cinemas in Europe (around €2 million at the European box office) and I doubt that the Australian box office was any better. Perhaps the film will be the long term sleeper and prove profitable on DVD and TV as Screendaily predicted. I hope so, it deserves to be seen.