Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 19, 2009 12:43 pm 
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Yellow-tinted turbulence and hope in the French urban ghetto

Dupeyron's new film, which blends the feel of a Fifties comedy with the raw materials of contemporary social realism, views the French urban ghetto through a yellow filter and the turbulent lens of black experience. The screen explodes with action from the first tilted, colorful shot. On her daughter's wedding day, Sonia (Félicité Wouassi) finds her husband Georges (Mamadou Dioumé) has just gambled away all their savings so there's no money to buy the laundromat she hoped to own--or even pay for the wedding party. While she's having her hair done she learns her teenage son Victor (Ralph Amoussou) has been arrested for possession of drugs (he deals, and hangs with a bad crowd) and she has to go and plead for his release. The younger son Leo (Charles-Etienne N'Diaye) is unreachable, whether playing video games in the apartment or, more often, risking his life with insanely suicidal stunts on the roof. And very shortly Sonia is going to learn that her younger, unmarried, daughter Suze (Elisabeth Oppong) is seven months pregnant, father unknown.

But that's not the worst of it. After Victor learns Georges has blown the family savings, the two have a violent fight. And there and then, in the bedroom, the much older Georges, who's now on a pension, has a heart attack and dies. Sonia hides this uncomfortable fact, gets people off to the wedding, and cries through most of the ceremony. She's in a fix, because if Georges' death becomes known to the State, she'll lose his pension, and it provides the only financial security.

Not knowing what to do, Sonia seeks advice from the elderly white man across the hall, Robert (Claude Rich), a lifelong loner, who lets her leave her husband's corpse with him till the wedding's over, and then suggests she bury it in the cellar. His lines are a droll blend of pathos and irony. "It'll be nice to have the company," he says of the corpse. "I've always been alone." And when they take the body down to be buried, he says, "This is so exciting! I never thought such a thing would happen!"

Eventually a bizarre relationship develops between Sonia and Robert, with elements of complicity and blackmail. She awakens a long-stilled (or perhaps never awakened) physicality in him and makes him long to see her naked and touch her flesh, even as the summer heatwave (canicule) leads everyone to dance half nude beside fire hydrants or sleep on the bathroom floor. The Sonia-Robert situation teeters between the touching and the creepy, but the veteran Rich's subtlety saves the day and in these scenes for once the ebullient and powerful Wouassi holds back. These sequences almost seem part of another movie, though they're lightened by the warm communal context. This is Dupeyron's first film since his 2003 Monsieur Ibrahim, and here again there's not only an interest in immigrant communities but a sense of pulsating neighborhood atmosphere. Duperron got his first idea for the film from reports of all the elderly French people dying in the summer heat wave of 2003, with a President who glossed over the seriousness of the issue and a troubled ambulance driver who told the media how bad things were. Hence the role in this film of the elderly people (some, Sonia's white charges, tend to be cranky bigots) and the recurring presence of Fer (Jacky Ido), an ambulance driver who falls in love with Sonia. Fer persists even though she rejects him because he's with her best pal, the upbeat hairdresser Marijo (Mata Gabin)--who is always urging Sonia to have fun and find a man. Eventually this gets sorted out, but the film still ends with everything very much intentionally up in the air. As a rap song over the closing credits points out, life is not a thing of resolutions.

Wouassi is a force of nature, though her character's unflappability is somewhat implausible. Claude Rich is haunting, and the many younger black actors are fine.The movie is winning, if somewhat messy. The tilted wide-angled camerawork is obtrusive and the endless yellow filter use ultimately unlovely. Some of the scenes have an intensity that makes you forget this is happening in France and Victor's references to the country almost seem spliced in to remind us. Apart from the bitchy old ladies, white France seems a mostly benign presence, especially as embodied by an expansive priest (Luc Leclerc du Sablon) at the wedding and baptism, and the harried but indulgent policewoman (Carole Frank). Where is the anger of Kassovitz's Hate, the pressure of Jolivet's Zim and Co, not to mention the alienation of many other French banlieue films, even Kechiche's delicate (and realistically textured) Games of Love and Chance--which, incidentally, came out the same year as Dupeyron's gentle, nostalgic crowd-pleaser, Monsieur Ibrahim? Dupeyron says he was partly inspired by Four Weddings and a Funeral. One can enjoy the abundant energy and humor of the director's new film and applaud the acting skill of Wouassi and the rest of the cast, while still finding certain elements wanting, or curiously incongruous.

Aide-toi, le ciel t'aidera, 94 mins., which debuted at Toronto September 2008, was written and directed by François Dupeyron. It was part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center 2009. Telluride, Toronto, Tokyo, Rome festivals; Best Actress prize for Wouassi at Tokyo. It opened commercially in Paris November 26, 2008 to excellent reviews (AlloCiné press rating 4.2)..

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