Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 24, 2011 12:13 pm 
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Children without papers

Hands Up (Les Mains en l'air) is a little film with a big heart and some wonderful scenes of children. The subject: a Croatian girl in a Paris middle school. Members of her family are legal residents of France; she is not and neither is her mother (Malika Doudaeva). The film is about how a French family and her schoolmates protect her from police arrest and how she gains legal status. Along the way Valeria Bruni Tedeschi smokes too many cigarettes, a ring tone is found that only children hear, and kids hiding in a cellar of their own school building adopt the seven babies of a female rat. This is a film about the burning issue of the "sans papiers" but it avoids earnestness by being lively, lighthearted and cute. The kids' interactions have a rare naturalness. Voiceovers by two people sixty years later set it all in perspective: they are the Croatian girl, Milana (Linda Doudaeva) and Blaise (Jules Ritmanic), the boy who is in love with her and still, as an old man, thinks of her every day. Legalization of Milana's status ended the young romance when she was sent to Lille to be with her uncle. He never saw her again. She was disappointed by the outcome too. She had been much happier away from her somewhat violent family. A triumph for social justice was a defeat for young love.

Entertaining and playful though it is, this is clearly a committed, left-leaning film firmly supporting amnesty for the undocumented. The mature Milana many years later underlines the filmmaker's contempt for M. Sarkozy by saying she "can't remember" who was President of France at that time. It is a fact that President Sarkozy's strict immigration policy has set an annual deportation quota of 25,000 persons and sometimes targets children registered in public schools, as is happening in the film.

In the story, one family protects Milana but it's her little school "gang" that hides her and gains national prominence by doing so. Blaise and his younger sister Alice (Louna Klanit) are the children of Cendrine (Bruni Tedeschi) and Luc (director Goupil). When one of the kids' pals in their building, Youssef (Dramane Sarambounou), and his whole family are deported and the mother in a family they know commits suicide and the police are clearly arresting kids, teachers and parents discuss what to do. It's Centrine who decides to take Milana into her family to hide her. Luc thinks this misguided and wants instead to go directly to a city official he knows and use "pistons," connections, to further Milana's case, an idea Cendrine strongly opposes.

Like Laurent Cantet in his (2008) Cannes Golden Palm winner The Class, Goupil uses improvisations to get natural sequences with the children. An early scene of them exchanging secret messages in math class shows their extraordinary complicity. Things jump forward when, with Milana as a de facto sister, Cendrine takes the kids for summer vacation. First off she has a loud confrontation with her brother Rodolphe (Hippolyte Girardot). He's to the right of Luc, and mocks her as an irresponsible dreamy pinko. Bruni Tedsechi has typically an abstracted, tired, but determined quality that fits this film's adult take on the issues. The romance between Blaise and Milana moves quietly forward in this vacation passage. Cendrine gets Milana a pretty blue bathing suit, but she won't go swimming with the others. She is embarrassed and hides because she is so happy. Blaise carves "M B" in a heart on a tree. Milana is pretty as a nineteenth-century portrait. Puff-haired Blaise is feisty and poetic, with a Roman profile. It's only innocent puppy love, but they do make a pretty couple. Mostly it's the kids' group dynamic that matters, though.

Nationality or race mean nothing to the children, who later decide to hide in the cave where before they manufactured pirated DVDs (a slightly far-fetched project for 10-year-olds?). Prevented from coming along, their friend Ali (Louka Masset) serves as outside informant, using number code. Cell phones are out because cops can track them.

The four-day disappearance of the band of brothers and sisters, which ends when Ali is followed by police to the kid's lair, devastates Cendrine and Luc, is all over the national news, and inspires copy-cat disappearances elsewhere in France. The whole business is never sentimentalized or turned into melodrama. The truant kids simply have a great time. The movie gives us media, school, police, the whole outer context, but it's the focus on candles, raindrops, flipflops, and games that anchor it in an engaging and palpable reality and make it a surprising success and convey a pro-immigrant message without didacticism. The HD cinematography by Irina Lubtchansky is good at keeping the kids sharp and intimate; she uses a rougher digital look for the moment when the children are brought out of their hiding place and on instinct rather than out of necessity do so "hands up."

Goupil is most known for his 1982 reminiscence of 1968, the rueful 1982 Camera d'Or winner To Die at 30. He has since made a series of less known, always political, films. Les Mains en l'air had a special screening at Cannes and was released June 9, 2010 in Paris theaters, receiving generally favorable reviews. However, some critics felt that issues are seen too much through the reassuring filter of bourgeois political correctness and too little through the raw experience of French illegals. Others pointed out that though Goupil avoids stridency he does not sufficiently invite thought. But the film is worth watching just for the children.

Seen and reviewed as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema presented by UniFrance and the Film Society of Lincoln Center at three NYC venues, the Walter Reade Theater uptown, IFC Cener downtown, and BAMcinématek in Brooklyn, frin March 3 to 13, 2011.

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