This was the third and last of ‘The Summer of French Films‘ promotion via Picturehouse Cinemas that I was able to catch (and I had to travel to York to catch it). Un homme d’État screened at Cannes and Montreal in 2014 but I suspect Unifrance is struggling to sell it internationally. At the moment there is only one review in English that I’ve found and virtually nothing on IMDB. In fact it barely registers on a web search.
This is that rare beast – a political drama that is actually about the business of politics. It isn’t a political thriller or a melodrama, just a drama. The right-wing sitting President is seeking re-election and floundering in the polls. He asks his aides to create something – anything – to move him up a few points or he will lose in the first round of voting. One of the aides suggests a trip to the South West and the suggestion of an alliance with an ‘old lion’ of the left, a retired politician of some standing. By turning leftwards rather than to the extreme right the President could secure the centre and attract votes. But how could the leftist M. Bergman be persuaded to at least appear to support the President? Cherchez la femme! A young(ish) woman amongst the President’s campaign team seems the logical choice and she is despatched to Gascony to meet Bergman. I won’t spoil the narrative except to say that there is a satisfying twist in the dénouement.
The problem that Unifrance face in selling the film here is that the cast and crew are virtually unknown in the UK and the central subject of French Presidential politics isn’t particularly sexy. French films are often dismissed (unfairly and through ignorance) as ‘all talk’. In this case it’s true – the film is primarily talk. But this is actually its strength and it is the script which provides the one hook for a UK audience in that it is co-written by François Bégaudeau who also wrote the Cannes prizewinner Entre les murs (The Class) in 2008. Bégaudeau also has a role in Un homme d’État as a journalist.
I found the film clunky for the first half hour or so and I struggled to get involved in the narrative. The subtitles seemed sub-standard (I’m sure at one point reference is made to a politician as ‘President of Africa’!) and I thought that the music was poorly used – loud and obtrusive at times for no apparent reason. However, I did get into the narrative gradually and once Safia Khalifa (Samia Dahmane) arrived in Gascony things started to pick up. I began to see the way the script worked and to appreciate the dialogue despite the subtitles. Making the envoy a French-Maghrebi woman is consistent with contemporary French politics and her first two actions on meeting M. Bergman (Pierre Santini) are to hold up a young sapling he is planting and to accept a glass of wine from his vineyards (the President doesn’t drink as we learn later on). I only realised the symbolism of these two actions after the screening when I was reflecting on the film. Clearly I was just not tuned in. On the plus side I thought that Patrick Braoudé as the President and Santini and Dahmane were all well cast and gave good performances. I was grateful that we were spared sex scandals and tabloid sensations and the actual political manoeuvrings were interesting. I began to see the script as witty and sharp. Many of the actors come from TV and since I know very little about French TV drama I’m wondering if perhaps this film would be more recognisable to French TV audiences (i.e. because of its style/acting/script as well as its content)? The film’s director and co-writer Pierre Courrège is relatively inexperienced as a features director for cinema although he does teach writing at EICAR (Ecole Internationale de Création Audiovisuelle et de Réalisation).
The French Summer of Film
I have enjoyed the three films I’ve seen and they were all worthwhile in different ways. I do, however, think that the season has been poorly promoted (surely the purpose of the venture is to promote French Cinema?) and I’ve only seen promo material within Picturehouse cinemas. I was interested that there were none of the usual ads preceding the films – a condition of the screenings? There was a much bigger audience for the York film than for the Bradford screenings.
The trailer for Un homme d’état (the archive footage isn’t all in the film) which demonstrates some of its problems:
(This is the second film from the Summer of French Cinema – see the earlier posting on Vie sauvage. I’m hoping to get to one more before the screenings end in the first week of August.)
Albertine Sarrazin was born in Algeria in 1937 and almost immediately taken into care and then adopted by a French family who took her to Aix-en-Provence. Her new family treated her badly and she ended up in ‘reform school’. Escaping, she pursued an interest in literature, supporting herself through prostitution and petty crime. Put in prison she escaped, breaking her ankle in the process. ‘L’astragale’ is the French term for the ‘ankle bone’ and Albertine was forced to have the bone ‘fused’ so that she developed a limp. She would spend the next few years in and out of prison where she developed her writing skills, including an autobiographical novel L’astragale, published in 1965. This new French film is the second adaptation of that novel, the first having appeared in 1969.
The new film, part scripted and wholly directed by Brigitte Sy, is an interesting ‘crime romance drama’, a polar of sorts that, because of its setting and the aesthetic choices made by the director, recalls the early crime-based films of la nouvelle vague, especially those of Jean-Luc Godard. The story begins with the escape and the broken ankle and deals primarily with Albertine’s developing relationship with Julien, the minor criminal who finds her outside the prison and helps her to recover. There are several scenes which feature Albertine’s writings in her notebooks, but the narrative ends before her first work is published – otherwise this would make an interesting comparison with Violette (France 2013) as another film exploring new kinds of writing by French women in the 1950s/60s.
The important aesthetic choice was to present the film in B+W CinemaScope and to set the story in the mid 1950s (roughly correct with the autobiography). The disadvantage of course is that with the action mainly in Paris, it is difficult to shoot on the streets without spending a great deal on extras and ‘set dressing’/CGI. I presume this was a relatively low-budget film and the most obvious way of dealing with the problems is to shoot on specific streets at times when there are no members of the public around – which gives the film a rather abstract look. I confess that when the film began and I didn’t know the story behind it I wondered if I was watching the first film of a new film school graduate – although I could see that the performances were all very good (and the cinematography/mise en scène). I learned later that Brigitte Sy is a well-known French actress who has previously directed a feature and two shorts. She has a son and daughter, Louis and Esther Garrel. Esther has an important role in L’astragale (see the image above) and Louis has been very successful since his lead role in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2002). Louis and his mother both have small roles in L’astragale. Sy’s ex-partner Philippe Garrel is a well-known French director who began making features in the mid 1960s.
The references to Godard include the sequences which explore Albertine’s life as a ‘streetwalker’ and which might be compared to the scenes featuring Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie (1962). Albertine’s first customer bears some resemblance to Jean-Pierre Léaud and several scenes in which Albertine is reading or writing while waiting in bars for Julien recall similar scenes in early Godard. When Albertine allows herself to be photographed (and therefore risking exposure to the police) I was reminded of Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. I enjoyed the film and especially the performances of the two leads. Leïla Bekhti as Albertine had an important role in Jacques Audiard’s Un prophète (France 2009). In 2010 she married that film’s young star Tahar Raheem. Reda Ketab, who plays Julien, also had a lead role in Un prophète. He and Leïla Bekhti are both from French-Algerian families and their casting gives the story authenticity. It also distinguishes the film from most of the early New Wave films in which the war in Algeria was rarely mentioned. Albertine’s disguise when trying to evade the police is based on a blonde short-haired wig, which for me seemed to emphasise her North African heritage because of its incongruity.
The various aesthetic choices are evident in this trailer (no subs, but there isn’t much dialogue):
This film is showing as part of ‘Summer of French Cinema 2015‘, six films screening across six different cinemas offered by a partnership between Picturehouse Cinemas and the French film export agency UniFrance. I’m guessing that this means that the three films won’t get a full UK release so we should be thankful that Picturehouse is providing this opportunity to see them. However, they are showing just once, each one seemingly randomly scattered across the standard film programmes at the participating cinemas (three different films at each cinema). You can download the full programme here – there are further screenings on July 20, 27 and August 3. A further selection of French films can be watched online at Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/unifrancefilmspro/vod_pages
I’m not sure quite how to take Vie sauvage. It is an adaptation of a non-fiction book, a ‘real life story’ written by the central character and directed by Cédric Khan. Khan is probably best known in the UK for 2002’s Roberto Succo. That too was an adaptation of a real life crime story and there are some similarities with Vie sauvage, including the focus on a man ‘on the run’ from the police. However, it would be misleading to think of this new film as a crime suspense narrative. The central character is ‘Paco’, a man of strong convictions played by the always excellent Mathieu Kassovitz complete with beard and a ponytail. Paco is a refusenik in terms of contemporary capitalist society and at the start of the narrative we find him living with ‘Nora’ (names in this story are often in quotes) and their three boys enjoying an alternative lifestyle outside urban French society. Nora (Céline Sallette) ‘incites’ the drama by deciding that she’s had enough of living outside society and takes her boys back to her parents’ home. Paco is furious and tries to take them back. The law eventually places the boys with Nora but after one of his ‘access visits’ Paco flees with the two youngest boys (the eldest, Thomas, elects to stay with his mother – he is Paco’s stepson but Tsali and Okyesa are Paco’s sons). The trio then successfully evade the police search for the next eleven years. The original story title is translated by Google as something like ‘Eleven years outside the system under the star of freedom’ – clumsy but not a bad description.
During this long period ‘on the run’, the trio have to change names and stories as they move from one commune to another, working on the land with the two boys being ‘home schooled’. Paco also attempts to instil his own ideas about living with nature and without modern technologies and consumer culture. The boys (who are six and seven when their adventure begins) at first take it all as a game but of course they will become ‘normal’ teenagers and rebel against parental authority when they are older. Nora does not reappear until the end of the narrative (apart from in a flashback) and it is interesting that the focus is on the father. In the ‘real’ story the French media told the story from the mother’s perspective, emphasising her loss as she and the police searched for the boys (with Paco facing two years in prison). I can’t really ‘spoil’ this narrative but I won’t describe the plot in detail. Since this is not a Boyhood type project, Kahn faces the problem of needing at least two pairs of actors to play the boys. Possibly he would have been better advised to have three sets but these multiple pairings are always difficult to make work and here I found the younger actors more credible. This isn’t a criticism of the older pair, more an issue about the big leap from small boys to young men.
Beautiful to look at with great use of natural light (camera by Yves Cape), always engaging and interesting as a narrative, I’m still not quite sure about the film – although I would certainly recommend it. The main issue is the mix of genres. I’ve already suggested that the suspense elements only carry parts of the narrative and at other times the film is perhaps best described as a family drama. It seems fairly obvious what attracted the Dardenne brothers to act as co-producers (it is an official French-Belgian production). The boys and their relationship with their father could easily appear in a Dardenne film, but I’m not sure about the long story time over so many years. The Dardenne films are also more intense as realist melodramas. As I watched the film I reflected on what might be termed the rural/pastoral realism of French cinema as featured in something like Renoir’s Toni (1934) or Will It Snow For Christmas? (1996). There are also moments when the film seems to draw on American cinema, especially Westerns, in those scenes in which the boys are happy rebels having fun holed up in a shack in the hills, plucking chickens and bombarding each other with feathers. The director himself was brought up in a rural commune in the 1970s and these scenes do indeed feel authentic. I was amused, however, to discover that the commune in which Paco first met Nora was based around tepees and Native American culture. I guess there is a sense in which Paco tries to take his sons through a kind of ‘natural’ rites of passage.
If you get the chance to see this film you might wish to compare it with The Wonders (Italy/Ger/Switz 2014) released in the UK today. The films have very similar elements but produce rather different narratives. Both are well worth seeing.
Trailer with English subs: