‘My French Film Festival‘ is with us again. I’ve signed up for this online festival for a few years now as it is one of the few ways to see French films, with English subtitles, that might not have been released in the UK. For a small fee (less than £8) you can watch around a dozen features plus a host of shorts (which are actually free if you don’t want to watch the features). The Festival films are often a mixed bag and this year my first pick proved to be something of a conundrum. The title is not really a clue since it is at best ambiguous. I’m not sure how it works in French but the English translation could be read at least two ways. I confess that, even though I found the two leads attractive and interesting, I was prepared to abandon the film halfway through because I wasn’t sure what was happening. But I stuck with it and then something changed and it all made more (but not total) sense. I became prepared to watch parts of it again and to try to understand why I had found it puzzling.
Labidi is around 30 and living in a tiny little Paris flat with his close friend Aleksei. He’s writing a novel after having won a prize for a short story. He gets by taking casual work to pay the rent. One day he visits his parents who run a small bar in Lyon. His mother is Tunisian and his father French. While at the bar he meets Elisa, a student. Employing what is presumably a hackneyed trick to construct a ‘meet cute’, he leaves Lisa his number. He and Elisa will get together in Paris (I presume Elisa is still registered as a student in Lyon?). Labidi falls in love very quickly and makes the rash decision to take a larger flat that he cannot afford and persuades a reluctant to Elisa to move in. From here on his chances of writing his novel (which he has agreed to deliver in six months) don’t look good as he now has to find a great deal of money to pay for the new pad. Some of his ideas for making money are dodgy at best and some are literally criminal. I don’t want to spoil the narrative and I won’t divulge what happens to Elisa, but I will tell you that Labidi writes his novel which turns out to be ‘auto fiction’ and the delighted publisher feels that it has dealt with the issue of precarity and will attract readers (presumably those of Generation X?) because of its ‘contemporaneity’. When I went back to the start of the film, I realised that I’d forgotten that it opens with Labidi talking to somebody who might be a psychiatrist and then we flash back to ‘six months earlier’ when he is on the train to Lyon. This then made me think again about the ending to the film.
The narrative tells us relatively little about the backgrounds of Labidi and Elisa, except that they are relatively modest. A key scene is when Labidi, working as a Deliveroo rider, discovers that he is handing over food to one of his contemporaries from university? This person has become moderately successful (as a writer?) partly because of his more middle-class background. The suggestion is that Labidi is feeling conflicted partly by his education and what it means for his family, particularly his mother and partly by his need to make money that in one sense pays for writing time but actually both gets in the way and makes him too tired to write. Auto-fiction in a sense solves the problem since it makes his conflict the material of the story he writes (which has the title of the film).
The film is a personal project for the writer-director Louda Ben Salah who presents Labidi as a character close to his own identity. Here’s his statement from the film’s Press Pack:
I wanted to make a film that was within my situation, at the heart of my concerns of the time, that is to say the urgency of paying very high rent, buying food in overpriced supermarkets… everything that makes the very concrete daily routine of a Parisian life. I didn’t want to describe but to make people feel the confusion of feelings: the happiness of being in love and the anguish of our social fragility. Apart from this urgency, I wanted to depict the angst, of transclass people.
I certainly felt the ‘confusion of feelings’ in the presentation of Labidi (and Elisa), but I thought perhaps that I didn’t really understand these characters, so much younger than me. Then I read an interview Ben Sarah gave to Cineuropa in which he mentioned Pierre Bourdieu and I thought perhaps I should read Bourdieu again. The two leads, Aurélien Gabrielli and Louise Chevillotte are very good and they do make an attractive couple. This is definitely a film to think about, indicated by my various questions above. Here’s the French trailer.