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Racism, sex, crime: French 'malaise' hits big screen

Upcoming French movies explore some of the country’s current woes -- racial unease, economic despair, sexual misbehaviour among elites -- with an unflinching gaze that feels new.’s film critic takes a closer look.


Contemporary French cinema, for all its virtues, has not been particularly adept at shedding light on contemporary French problems.

Despite France’s current “malaise” (documented with glee by The New York Times’ editorial page) and its symptoms -- economic woes, political dysfunction, racial and religious discrimination -- most French filmmakers have turned a blind eye; France’s cinema is dominated by frothy comedies filled with chit-chat and country homes, hushed dramas of domestic or romantic turmoil, nostalgic period pieces and crime thrillers -- films that often excel at examining individual crises, but rarely bother to link them to the broader predicaments of French society.

Even when French filmmakers address their country’s imperfections, the results tend to be tinged with self-congratulatory uplift and packaged for the masses. A recent example, “The Intouchables” (2011), about a wealthy, wheelchair-bound white man and his black caregiver, was a crowd-pleaser that celebrated a boundary-crossing bond without taking a hard look at the boundary. Audiences ate it up.

Over the next several weeks, however, a handful of French releases – Claire Denis’ “Bastards” (“Les salauds”), Thierry de Peretti’s “Les Apaches”, Rebecca Zlotowski’s “Grand Central” and Serge Bozon’s “Tip Top” – expose what one might call the grimy underbelly of present-day France.

Other French movies from the last few years, like “Louise Wimmer”, “All That Glitters” (“Tout ce qui brille”) and “The Names of Love” (“Le nom des gens”), touched on themes of poverty, identity and social exclusion. But all were essentially optimistic films, in which French ideals prevailed and paved the way for happiness.

The new movies are a more bitter crop. Dealing with race, class, alienation, corruption and sex crimes that bring to mind the headline-grabbing Dominique Strauss-Kahn saga, they portray a France unsettlingly estranged from its values of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Claire Denis’ damning vision of French elite

In Denis’ “Bastards”, a mesmerising, deeply disturbing thriller (to be released in France on August 7), a family is ravaged – economically, emotionally and physically – by an elderly tycoon (Michel Subor) with ties to a sex ring.

Chiara Mastroianni and Vincent Lindon in Claire Denis' "Bastards".
Chiara Mastroianni and Vincent Lindon in Claire Denis' "Bastards".

Seeking vengeance, the protagonist, a naval officer played by Vincent Lindon, makes moves on the tycoon’s mistress (the excellent Chiara Mastroianni), only to find himself drawn into a web of unspeakable secrets and hazy motives.

Digitally shot and propelled by a haunting electronic score, “Bastards” is sleek and voluptuous, only gradually revealing a heart of darkness beneath the attractive trimmings of bourgeois Parisian life (lavish apartments, chic clothes, copious amounts of coffee, cigarettes and sex).

Denis, among the most adventurous French directors, has always been interested in those on the margins of France: a black father and daughter in “35 Shots of Rum”, lonely legionnaires in “Beau Travail”, transvestites and immigrants in “I Can’t Sleep”, French colonials and expats in Africa in “Chocolat” and “White Material”, and even cannibals in “Trouble Every Day”.

“Bastards” features its share of outcasts, too, but the film marks one of the few times Denis has zoomed in on the top layer of French society -- the power brokers and deal makers. What she discovers is a sordid little world that operates above the law, powered by unspoken codes involving money, sex, blackmail, and the commodification of the female body and soul.

The failure of individual desires and moral justice to triumph above the toxic forces at work in the film can hardly be qualified as typically or especially French. But in the light of the string of sexual and financial scandals that have kept France’s political class in the news since the DSK bombshell, “Bastards” plays like a scorching portrait of a country’s moral rot.

Corsica, not just an island paradise

A more overtly seedy side of France is depicted in the Corsica-set teen crime drama “Les Apaches” (to be released in France on August 14), which finds director Thierry de Peretti, a native Corsican, all but ignoring the French island’s famous white-sand beaches and quaint villages. The place portrayed in the film is not just a holiday destination for moneyed mainlanders; it’s a hornet’s nest of socioeconomic divisions, ethnic tensions and machismo-fuelled violence.

A scene from Thierry de Peretti's "Les Apaches".
A scene from Thierry de Peretti's "Les Apaches".

The story is set in motion when Aziz (Aziz El Hadachi), the soft-spoken son of Arab immigrants, and his friends steal from a mansion belonging to a rich French family. The family employs a corrupt local property mogul to investigate, and when his trail leads to Aziz, the other kids – some Arab, others of Corsican descent, all year-round Corsica inhabitants -- begin to worry he will turn them in.

“Les Apaches” is only fitfully involving, its characters lacking the complexity needed to make us fully invested in the creaky plot, and its neorealist visuals not bold or original enough to compensate.

What feels fresh, however, is the behind-the-scenes, warts-and-all look at a part of France where privileged visitors come and go, while permanent residents remain locked in a caste system of their own -- with Arabs at the bottom.

“Les Apaches” indeed shows France’s most spectacular region mired in two realities that the French, most of whom count generous social programmes and a “colour-blind” model of integration as deeply ingrained traditions, are known to dread: drastic economic inequality and the ghettoisation of underprivileged communities.

Where is the ‘French dream’?

Director Rebecca Zlotowski brings greater stylistic confidence to a story with similar subject matter -- a French underclass with few options -- in “Grand Central” (to be released in France on August 28).

Taking place in and around a nuclear power plant in rural France, the film focuses on a financially strapped young man (Tahar Rahim) who takes a risky job as a decontamination worker -- and further complicates his life by fooling around with the boss’s wife (Lea Seydoux).

Rahim and Seydoux are two of France’s sexiest young stars, but most of the people in “Grand Central” are a far cry from the stylish Parisians frequently featured in French cinema; scruffy and fleshy, with unflattering haircuts and dated clothes, these folks could be mistaken for small-town Texans if they weren’t speaking Molière’s language and sipping rosé with lunch.

Zlotowski establishes a mood of economic anxiety early on, when Rahim’s character asks the woman interviewing him if there is any job out there that pays more than 1,200 euros a month. “Not with your CV,” is her blunt answer.

The lack of social mobility alluded to in that scene finds its visual equivalent in the claustrophobic power plant. Filming the daily rites and accessories of life inside this strange bubble (plastic suits, radiation monitors, feverish scrubbing and showering), Zlotowski gives these sequences an eerie, nightmarish texture that’s more vivid than anything in the overheated, underwritten love triangle plot.

The overarching metaphor of “Grand Central” – romantic passion is radioactive – is cloyingly obvious. But the underlying metaphor, which equates socioeconomic pressures with nuclear danger, seems apt.

The film also reflects the fatalism with which many in France have greeted an economic crisis that is being felt acutely, despite the country’s social safety net. In an American movie, the struggling protagonist would likely be nursing a secret aspiration or talent that could lift him out of his grim life (the “American dream” still casts a powerful spell on US filmmakers’ imaginations). “Grand Central” begs the question: Is there a “French dream”? And if so, what happened to it?

Serge Bozon’s post-colonial slapstick

Filmmaker Serge Bozon explores different French hang-ups in “Tip Top” (to be released in France on September 11), his aggressively eccentric hybrid of cop drama and erotic farce.

Revolving around two internal affairs officers, played by Isabelle Huppert (imperious and deranged) and Sandrine Kiberlain (dizzy and flustered), investigating the death of an Algerian police informant in northern France, the film’s true subject is post-colonial anxiety.

In “Tip Top”, France’s complicated ties to its large Algerian population hang over the proceedings like an unidentifiable mist, the two communities regarding each other with a mix of incomprehension and fetishistic desire. While the main male figure, a goofy detective (François Damiens), obsessively reads up on Islam and practices comically spotty Arabic whenever he can, both female characters engage in S&M-tinged sexual relationships with Arab men -- and one of them makes a habit of lustfully spying on a shirtless Arab neighbour.

The romantic intermingling between whites and Arabs in the film points to a form of reconciliation. But the violence, voyeurism, and objectification that ignite those bonds suggest the simmering racial unease that periodically boils over in France, as in recent clashes between youths and police in a Parisian suburb.

Bozon, who made the lovely World War I film “La France” in 2007, wisely chooses to develop his ideas in an offbeat, rather than treacly or didactic, register; too bad he nearly drowns them in strenuous, often grating slapstick.

Still, like all of these movies, “Tip Top” has a refreshing integrity: that of a filmmaker holding his country up to a mirror, and not flinching at what he sees.

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