This is one of the better French films I’ve seen lately. The main character, Louise Wimmer—who’s in just about every frame of the pic—, is a woman in her late 40s who works part-time as a chambermaid in a hotel—her boss won’t put her on full—and, not earning enough to make ends meet, lives in her car and scrounges for leftover food at chain restaurants. It’s one of the best cinematic treatments I’ve seen of contemporary précarité économique—economic precariousness—in an advanced industrialized society, not only of the objective reality of life for someone who is leading a hand-to-mouth existence but also what it does to him or her psychologically—of living in a permanent state of fear for the future—and to relationships with others.
We learn in the course of the film that Louise is divorced and that prior to that had had a materially comfortable middle-class life. The one US critic who has reviewed the film so far had some criticisms of the way it developed Louise’s character on this score
Yet while the director…does a fine job at mapping Louise’s daily struggle to eat and sleep, he fails to reveal much about who she really is: Why doesn’t she trust anyone? Why did she never have a real career? How did she turn out this way?
I differ with the critic, as I don’t think the director needed to give any more information about Louise than he did. She was mistrustful of people because she was in a fragile state in every respect, was deeply ashamed of her situation—so didn’t want to talk about it, even with her occasional lover—, and had little protection against those who could exploit her. As for not having a career and how she ended up where she was, one can easily come up with plausible hypotheses. E.g. her ex-husband earned a sufficiently high salary—which is pretty clear in the one scene where we see him—so that she didn’t have to work, or that she did work but not in a job necessitating advanced or specialized training—as an office employee or something of the sort—, lost it and couldn’t find anything comparable. The film is set in Belfort in the Franche-Comté, which is a part of France with particularly high unemployment. And Frenchmen and women who lose their jobs after age 40 and are not highly skilled—and even then—have a poor chance of finding any kind of employment, let alone at their previous salary. The phenomenon of déclassement social, the great fear of the French middle and working classes, does happen. In the case of Louise, we gather that her divorce was messy—as she was not on good terms with her ex-husband, who was remarried—and led to her being turned out of her social milieu.
One noteworthy issue implicitly raised in the film is that of logement social, i.e. public housing. Louise is desperate to get an HLM, as the private housing market is inaccessible to her. There are several scenes of her increasingly acrimonious dealings with the functionaries in the public housing authority, where her application has been stalled for months (she’s not a priority case and demand is greater than supply). I can’t remember the last film I saw that depicted the tours et barres of the cités in such a light, as the salvation for so many (as it’s either that or being sans-abri). It certainly underscores the importance of public housing in France. Again, I was very impressed with this film. And I’m not alone, as French reviews are tops. And for all its moroseness and dreariness, it has a happy ending!
I’ve seen a few other movies of late with people living on the margins as the main theme. One was ‘Une vie meilleure’ (English title: ‘A Better Life’), which came out earlier this month. I had high hopes for it, as it was well-reviewed and with the sublime Leïla Bekhti—for whom I have a soft spot—in the lead. And the director, Cédric Kahn, is well-respected, though I hadn’t seen anything by him before. But the pic was a disappointment. Big problems with the screenplay and from the very beginning. The young couple meet par hasard—for him it’s a coup de foudre—, go on a date right away, make out on the street illico, cut to them in bed, instant love, he moves in, they’re a couple, and making plans for the future. All in four minutes. C’était un peu rapide. The guy—played by the well-known actor Guillaume Canet—is a cook by training and gets a brilliant idea to open a restaurant in an abandoned house in one of the big parks near Paris (precise location not specified), that they happened to stumble across. He has the entrepreneurial spirit and she goes along with his scheme. This part stretched credulity, as to how they got the bank loan and with no collateral—the guy was unemployed and with no family to back him up—, and were then able to hire the contractor and have the work done. And the Leïla Bekhti character, who had a nine-year old son from an unhappy marriage she had fled, was made to be from Lebanon. What an odd choice. Mlle Bekhti is clearly of Maghrebi origin—her parents are from western Algeria—and does not at all look Lebanese. And Lebanese Muslims don’t speak French the way she does (when they speak it at all), and generally do not flee their families and end up in France (at least not those from her social class in the film). This made no sense. She should have been a beurette in the film, which is what Leïla B. is in real life. The couple’s restaurant dreams inevitably came crashing down and they ended up in a situation of grave economic précarité. The depiction of this—of their vie de galère in the neuf-trois—is not bad but the way the story developed, with the Bekhti character suddenly taking off for Montreal to pursue an apparently great opportunity—but which was not—and leaving her son with b.f., with whom she was increasingly estranged, was a stretch, not to mention the way the thing ended (with all reunited in the dead of the Canadian winter). In short, thumbs down to this one.
I’ve seen a couple of other pics in the last couple of months with a living-on-the-margins motif. One was a self-proclaimed “guerrilla film” called ‘Donoma’, by the youthful Haitian-born Paris-based director Djinn Carrenard, and which was apparently made on a budget of €150 (meaning that the non-professional cast worked for free). I hesitated over seeing it, mainly on account of its 2 hour 20 minute length, but was swayed by the praise of two (non-French) cinephile friends, who pronounced it “brilliant” and “very good, maybe great,” respectively. And Paris critics gave it the thumbs up (see in particular the reviews in Les Inrocks and L’Express). Hollywood Reporter, which liked the pic on the whole, thus described it
Set almost exclusively in a series of bedrooms, stairwells, subway cars and side streets [in Paris and the inner banlieue], Donoma tracks the conflict-ridden relations of a handful of teens and 20-somethings [of various ethnic origins], jumping back and forth between plot strands, and using structural leaps to show how each character is ultimately connected… As the stories progress, the many conversations, têtes-à-têtes and shouting matches reveal how relationships must forever stand the test of each lover’s personal baggage – which, in today’s multicultural Paris, is one highly marked by both ethnic origin and the social divide.
And this from Variety, which gave it a qualified positive review
Electrifying drama and patience-testing talkfest are housed under the same roof of “Donoma,” [that demands] attention on the strength of its riveting examination of love, faith and identity among a loosely connected group of Parisians…
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the film. Some of the situations did not strike me as entirely believable—which doesn’t mean that they weren’t; I may not be au fait as to what happens in the particular milieux depicted in the film—and it was overly long—but it held my attention throughout. For a film of over two hours, that’s not bad.
Another film seen with a sort of living-on-the-margins theme was ‘Americano’, produced and directed by Mathieu Demy—son of Jacques Demy and Angès Varda—, and who played the lead role. I went to see it strictly on account of the trailer, which showed it to be mainly set in Los Angeles and Tijuana. For a French film, that’s a good enough hook for me. Selma Hayek was also in it—as a stripper in Tijuana—and as I’d never seen her in a movie before, this was the occasion. It was attention-holding enough, not too bad, but not essential either. It’s fine for DVD. Not worth the trip to the cinema. US reviews here and here.
Finally, I’ll mention a film, ‘Les Adoptés’, that has nothing to do with précarité économique and wasn’t even that good, but is noteworthy as it was directed by Mélanie Laurent, normally an actress and who is only 28-years old. I love Mélanie Laurent and am impressed that she had the self-confidence and ambition to make the film—not to mention the time, given all her other commitments—, and even though she no doubt knew she would be snickered at and the pic would receive (deservedly) mixed reviews (e.g. here, here, and here). I admire her culot. Good for her.