Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Apr 05, 2016 11:18 pm 
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The muddled case of a dubious do-gooder

Belgian director Joachim Lafosse has a penchant for unhealthy relationships that victimize children -- a woman more into having affairs than managing her family in Private Property (2006), adults giving dubious sexual instruction to a minor in Private Lessons (2008), a wealthy benefactor destructively invading a young family's private lives in Our Children (NYFF 2012). This time, in a more ambitious production, he takes on a more wholesale takeover of children's lives: a charitable NGO that would seize Chadian civil war orphans and provide them for adoption by French people. The agent is the head of an organization called Sud Secours, one Jacques Arnault, played by Vincent Lindon. This is based on the 2007 Zoe’s Ark case. Télérama calls Lindon "perfect in his first ambiguous, equivocal role." The great Lindon is the best reason to watch anything he's in, anyway, even if his ambiguity this time robs us of our usual pleasure of identifying with him. Indeed the ambiguity, or sheer muddle, of the action sometimes makes it too undramatic. This story of a creeping meltdown that starts going bad from day one tends to be a little too obvious from the start and too slow at the end.

Actor-director Valérie Donzelli plays Françoise Dubois, a journalist who accompanies the party to chronicle it. The crew is augmented by a convincing cast representing the locals, plus, besides Donzelli, Louise Bourgoin as Arnault's girl Friday Laura and a typically strong Rida Kateb as his Arab-French travel man Xavier, with whom he's constantly at odds. Hostility among team members is as big as any of the other problems Arnault faces, and he does a lot of shouting himself.

There are two main aspects to the general débâcle that the film depicts. First, the group meets from the start with a host of practical complications. A plane engine won't start, and there is no spare part. Village chiefs visited by plane across a wide desert don't come up with children when expected and time and money to keep coming back are going to run out. Then there is the matter of morale. The French crew members are far from home and become tired and out of sorts. Or they develop moral compunctions. Perhaps the moral compunctions are sometimes an outgrowth of the fatigue. The boss and his French crew don't seem to know much about the culture, and they don't know any language but French, not even a word, it seems.

Second, there is the problem of finding suitable children. It's impossible to verify their identities, to know their exact ages or even if they are orphans as they're said to be. Much seems to hinge on the latter question, probably so Arnault can please the adopting couples back in France, and typically in such cases they must be five years old or under. The child's parent may be nearby, simply wishing for it to get care and schooling she can't provide. Since children are adopted all the time who have living parents, it's not clear why this is such a key issue, if the parent signs off on the adoption. Long and tedious are the squabbles and worries about this. As complications multiply, a whole group of team members break away and leave. They have begun to find the aims and practices of the project too dubious.

"Exfiltrate" is used for orphans only in connection with this film. It means evidently getting them out of the country without being detected by authorities, because the whole process is illegal. How much is it okay to bend the rules where there aren't many rules anyway and when you're working in a good cause? But how much of a good cause is what's going on here? How much is this saving kids and how much is it buying and selling them? Arnault is constantly insisting he is not paying for kids, while doling out money on the way to getting hold of them. His motives are always good but his means often aren't. (How much illegality and moral ambiguity are involved in all the First World's adoptions of Third World children?)

It also develops that Arnault already has legal problems, which angers journalist Dubois, who came along in the belief she was covering an uplifting story. Her coverage may become less eulogy and more exposé. In her anger, she refuses to let Arnault use her footage on the children to verify their identities. Nobody seems to want to cooperate. It's a tense, un-fun group we watch. Tristes tropiques.

Vincent Lindon is nearly always on screen and the true-blue quality he customarily projects makes us want to root for the project and cling to the hope that it will come off. But while Lafosse's film is rich in a sense of being there, in this big compound or flying across the desert in the middle of nowhere, much of it is repetitious and, in a tense sort of way, surprisingly boring. Perhaps that is its discreet charm: it presents the tedium of real problems, not dramatically heightened ones. But the problem is that the depiction of boredom should not be boring.

The screenplay was loosely adapted from journalists Geoffroy d'Ursel and Francois-Xavier Pinte's Zoe’s Ark case book Sarkozy dans l’avion? Les Zozos de la Francafriqu -- by too many cooks, it looks like, with Jacques Audiard scribe Thomas Bidegain listed along with Thomas Van Zuylen, Bulle Decarpentries, Zélia Abadie, and Jérôme Beaujour, as well as the director. The work of dp Jean-Francois Hensgens is rigorous in its austere neutrality. Though there are closeups and middle shots, the cinematography makes much of the unusually large quarters hired for the group to occupy, shooting the big rooms and courtyards from a distance and thus heightening not only the overblown, First World-funded enterprise but the distances between the participants. It's a project that's never quite going to come together. One is dragged (repeatedly) through events, without becoming enlightened.

The White Knights/Les cavaliers blancs, 112 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2015; nine other festivals, including San Francisco (SFIFF) April 2016, where it was screened for this review. Released in France 20 Jan. 2016, with fair to mixed reviews (AlloCiné press rating 3.1/24). Many praise Lindon's power and nuance, but some like me note how the film becomes boring and flat, bogged down by its own neutrality.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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