Samba is the follow-up to the second biggest global hit in French film history, Intouchables (2011) – a film I’ve been meaning to write about for some time. Perhaps watching Samba will prompt me to do so. The same writing-directing duo (Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano) and the same star (Omar Sy) feature in this $20 million budget film. Omar Sy is the French TV star who became a surprise film star in Intouchables – as an African-French character given a lead role in an industry not noted for its representations of Africans in mainstream films. In Samba he plays a Senegalese migrant who has been in France for 10 years but who has still not achieved legal residency.
I missed this film during its (very brief) run in UK cinemas but I still wanted to see it even though I could see the flaws in Intouchables. I was worried by some of the negative reviews but in the event I did enjoy Samba – but I can understand some of the critical responses. Part of the problem is that the film mixes several distinct genres in a way that might certainly confound some audiences and which provides good ammunition for critics.
Samba is both a comedy and a drama. It also mixes a quite complex visual style – a pre-credits sequence aping Scorsese (in his Goodfellas period) – with both absurdist and slapstick comedy and some social realism. In genre terms it includes elements of the buddy movie mixed with the rom-com and social commentary. All in all it is a strange mixture but its good points shouldn’t get lost. It isn’t really very helpful to dismiss films because they try to do something different.
Headlining alongside Omar Sy are Charlotte Gainsbourg and Tahar Rahim. Gainsbourg provides the ‘romance-comedy-drama’ potential and Rahim enables the buddy movie. Gainsbourg’s character is a marketing executive who has ‘burned out’ and has decided to take a sabbatical as a support worker for a refugee/migrant charity. This is how she meets Samba (Sy) who has been imprisoned and given an order to leave France despite 10 years illegal residency and steady employment in kitchen work, albeit with a struggle to get from dish-washing to food preparation. Rahim’s character, another migrant with a similar history, eventually teams up with Samba in a series of casual jobs leading to various comic escapades. Although the narrative resolution suggests a ‘feelgood’ film, the ending is to some extent still ‘open’ and it is triggered by one of the important debates around identity and legal status. The resolution is only possible after a tragic event. The style of the film’s ending also echoes the ‘excess’ of the opening, using popular songs under a slow motion image sequence much as the whole narrative has used songs and ‘mood’ music throughout.
So what is wrong with the film? Ashley Clark, currently one of the UK’s most respected critics of African-American and Black British films, states what he sees as a fundamental flaw directly in his indieWire review:
Without apparent irony, Nakache and Toledano seem to think that the work-related burnout of a white middle-class woman, while of course unpleasant in its own way, is equivalent to the byzantine existential crisis of living job-to-job, hand-to-mouth as an undocumented immigrant (in a country with well-documented right-leaning tendencies on domestic policy.)
It’s hard to argue with that view and Clark does recognise that the film is genuinely trying to widen its potential audience, but, he argues, the narrative needs more grit and more background about Samba and his family – mother is back in Senegal and Samba lives with a (legally resident) uncle. Clark argues that Sy ‘soars above’ the material. I agree but perhaps this is also part of the problem? Sy is such a charismatic performer that audiences may simply be entertained by his playing rather than led to think through the social problems that Samba faces. Something similar was also true in Intouchables.
The strength of the film is that it does reveal the dreadful state of immigration policy in France and the absurd bureaucracy that attempts to control it. I’m not sure it is better in the UK – represented in the superior Stephen Frears film Dirty Pretty Things (UK 2002) with Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead. The other issue at stake here is the star turn by Omar Sy in a mainstream film. His scenes with Charlotte Gainsbourg do fleetingly remind us of her notorious scenes with two (anonymous) African men in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Part II (Denmark/Bel/Fra/Ger 2014). I mention this only to ask how much of a breakthrough it is for French mainstream cinema as distinct from art cinema to see a white woman with a black man on screen? Tahar Rahim’s presence in the film (which I very much enjoyed in spite of some reviewers’ misgivings) reminds us that Maghrebi French actors have not faced the same problems in French cinema (and international cinema) as West African French actors.
In Sight and Sound (May 2015), leading French cinema scholar Ginette Vincendeau offers a critique similar to Ashley Clark’s. She makes a good point in pointing out that like Intouchables, Samba involves “the pairing of an under-privileged-but-vigorous black with privileged-but-etiolated white (Gainsbourg at her most annoyingly wan)”. I disagree about Gainsbourg but it’s an important observation. Too often film narratives that should be about the black character end up diverting our attention to the trials of the white characters. But Vincendeau also picks out two specific scenes as ‘unworthy’ of the actors or supporting her argument above. The first sees Sy and Rahim in a take-off of a well-known soft drinks ad and the second sees “white people attempt, not very well, to dance to black music (in this case Bob Marley)”. I think this is going too far. The first may be a ‘clunky ‘ visual joke (but still funny), but the second is something that has happened throughout the last 50 years in the UK. Is it really a clumsy and at times dubious representation of racial difference? Perhaps it’s different in France? We have to grant Samba some slack as a mainstream movie. Yes, it could be a lot ‘better’, but it isn’t that bad and overall it does something useful.
First a confession. I found this a puzzling film. It was difficult to watch for various reasons but it made me think and there are many good things about it. I first wrote a blog post asking questions and making guesses about what it all might mean. Then I discovered the Press Notes and most of the answers. I turned out to be more or less correct on several points but there were some things I didn’t know and I certainly hadn’t picked out all the ideas behind the film. I think you need the notes to ‘read’ the film successfully and I’m not sure that is a good thing. Here are my revised notes informed by the Press Pack.
During the screening I thought of an important but little-known film by Jean Renoir, Toni (France 1934). Often quoted as the film that provided the spark for neo-realism, Toni tells the story of Italian migrant workers in South-Eastern France filmed mostly on location. Grand Central is set in the lower Rhone Valley where there are three nuclear plants. The central characters are two experienced workers at one of these plants (one of whom is called Toni) and they accept the responsibility to take into their team three young workers who are marginal characters with backgrounds in petty crime. The older and younger workers live together in a caravan park by the river. One of the trio of young men, ‘Garry Manda’ (Tahar Rahim) then becomes involved with Toni’s young fiancée Karole (Léa Seydoux) who also works in the plant.
The Renoir connection is strengthened by a sequence in which Gary and Karole have a midnight tryst which takes them in a boat down the river and Toni is cuckolded just like the innkeeper in Renoir’s Une partie de campagne (France 1936). I’m not suggesting that the film’s aesthetic approach matches Renoir, but there is certainly a shared sense of seeing the narrative from the point of view of the working-class characters. A second connection to Francophone cinema’s realist wing is the casting of Olivier Gourmet (from the Dardenne Brothers’ films) as Gilles, the senior figure on the works team. Toni is played by Denis Ménochet, best known from Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. (These observations are matched by comments from the film’s director in the Press Pack when she says that she consciously drew on the 1930s films with working-class characters. As well as the naming of Toni, ‘Manda’ is a reference to the lead male character in Jacques Becker’s 1952 film Casque d’or. Denis Ménochet reminds the director of Robert Mitchum.)
The visual and aural style of the film does not necessarily relate to realism. Co-writer and director Rebecca Zlotowski employs shallow focus shots with ‘pulled’ focus transitions and a distinctive mix of interiors, seemingly shot inside a real nuclear power station, contrasted with pastoral scenes by the river. The interiors were shot on digital cameras to capture the detail of the harshly illuminated scenes but the ‘warm’ exteriors were shot on 35mm film. The music is often menacing from an electronic score involving various collaborations – most of the music was composed specifically for the film. The menace in the plant comes from the threat of contamination while outside it hangs heavily in the mainly outdoor scenes of a kind of communal life around the caravans and on the river bank creating a nervous tension between the men and relatively few women. I’m kicking myself now for not making the connections with stories about other kinds of industrial life with ‘workers camps’ – fruit-pickers, road-builders, railway-builders etc. The director refers to the bar and the camp found in certain kinds of Hollywood Western. These kinds of narratives all work with the combination of dangerous occupations and strong emotions amongst the camps’ inhabitants.
We learn about the procedures required inside the nuclear plant but very little about the backgrounds to any of the characters themselves. What is clear is that Gilles and Toni see themselves as skilled workers with an informed perspective on the inequalities of the working conditions in the plant whereas the the younger men (and possibly younger women) have no political awareness and are reckless in terms of the dangers posed by contamination. In this divide is the basis of an interesting film about collective v. individualistic behaviour and a critique of labour relations in the nuclear industry. (The scenes inside the plant – and some outside – were shot in a mothballed plant in Austria.) However, Ms Zlotowski presents the ‘worker’s story’ through the prism of the sexual relationship between Gary and Karole, her two attractive leads. There is an emphasis across the film on the bodies of the workers. We see them dressing and undressing and being examined for evidence of possible contamination from radioactive materials. After possible contamination they are hosed down and scrubbed. Outside the plant it is Karole who is clearly ‘exposed’. She wears an extraordinary outfit – a tight, close fitting ‘body’ garment of soft white cotton emphasising her breasts with similarly tight and short cut-off denims. This provocative outfit is both revealing and constraining – and clearly far too much for Gary. Léa Seydoux appeared in Zlotowski’s previous film Belle Épine and she was one of the twin stars of the controversial film Blue is the Warmest Colour. Her ‘exposure’ raises some questions about the intentions of her female director.
In the Press Pack Zlotowski suggests that she deliberately presented Seydoux as an erotic figure and that she had in mind something like the appearance of Marilyn Monroe in Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night (US 1952) in which Robert Ryan pursues Barbara Stanwyck in a small fishing community. Tahar Rahim is a star actor who can suggest both vulnerability and fortitude but here it is quite difficult to understand what might be going on in his head. We do learn something about his difficult family background and there is the suggestion that he might have found a new family with Gilles and Toni like surrogate father/uncle/mentor. But he appears determined to ‘prove himself’ – partly by taking great risks with his own health. This threatens to break up his working group and the relationships in the caravan park. The two young lovers are not a conventional heroic couple.
The mixture of ‘romance’ and the Western helps to explain the focus on the saloon bar (with its mechanical bull, reminiscent of John Travolta’s Urban Cowboy of 1980) as the focal point for the ‘showing off’ of the ‘strangers’ who come into town. Rebecca Zlotowski tells us that she also admires the Hollywood films featuring strong and tough working men and she quotes Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men (yet another 1952 film) with Robert Mitchum as one of the rodeo riders.
I can now see how the film narrative is supposed to work. I’m not sure it quite does for me and the politics of labour conditions isn’t explored enough for my taste, but this is a much more interesting film than most out there, so please give it a go. The original story comes from a novel titled La Centrale by Elisabeth Filhol and was then developed by Gaëlle Macé, Zlotowski’s screenwriter. So, three women as creative forces behind a film about men at work and the possibly disruptive eroticism of a woman in their midst.
The helpful UK trailer:
There have been a number of French films over the last few years about World War Two which, even if they are not particularly good examples of the cinematic art, at least draw attention to important aspects of history which would otherwise not be known or not known particularly well. Days of Glory (Indigènes, Rachid Bouchareb, 2006) deals with the treatment of African colonial troops fighting in the Free French forces in the Second World War. The Army of Crime (L’armée du crime, Robert Guédiguian, 2009) – perhaps one of the more successful – looks at the events of the” l’affiche rouge” (“red poster”) affair in which the Nazis sought to present prominent resistance fighters in Paris as foreign criminals. The title was taken from the caption on a Nazi propaganda poster, which reads “Liberators? Liberation by the army of crime”.
The Round-up (La rafle, Roselyne Bosch, 2010) is a faithful retelling of the 1942 “Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup” and the events surrounding it where the Vichy authorities in Paris, going beyond what their Nazi masters demanded, rounded up 13,000 French Jews, including 4,000 children, and kept them in the Vélodrome d’Hiver (winter cycling track) until they were transported to French concentration camps and thence to their death in the camps in the East. (Some of the publicity suggested that this film was the first to bring this knowledge to a wide audience. In fact there were at least two French films portraying this event: Les Guichets du Louvre (The Gateways to the Louvre) (Michel Mitrani, 1974), and Mr. Klein (David Losey, 1976).
Free Men (Les hommes libres, Ismaël Ferroukhi, 2011) joins this list. It is set in and around Paris’s Muslim community and in particular the city’s Central Mosque. Jews and resistance members were being hidden in the Mosque’s cellars while, up above, this place of worship was frequently visited by German occupiers.
There are two prominent real-life characters in this little-known story. Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit is Rector of the Mosque, (played by Anglo-French veteran, Michael Lonsdale); and Salim Halali, the gifted Algerian Jewish singer, passing as an Arab to escape deportation and living under the protection of the Mosque, (played by Israeli Palestinian actor, Mahmoud Shalaby). Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit is played as a courageous man but also a subtle diplomat, leading on the Wehrmacht officers with promises of an alliance with the Moroccan monarchy.
At the centre of the film is Younes, played by Tahar Rahim (who starred in Un prophète (Jacques Audiard, 2009)), whose character is based on a composite of several real-life individuals. Younes is a young apolitical Algerian black-marketeer, concerned only with himself and his family back home. He is forced to become an informer for the collaborationist police but, under the influence of his politicised cousin, he is gradually drawn into taking sides against the Nazis.
Younes’s metamorphosis into a militant in the resistance is slow and gradual. His first act of resistance is to deliver false identity papers to Jews living in hiding. He is too late to help the parents but he leads the two young children to the Mosque where they are taken in and given papers saying they are Muslims. The Germans begin to suspect the Mosque of both harbouring Jews and Resistance members and providing Jews with false paperwork saying they are Muslims.
So does it work as a film? Unfortunately good intentions don’t always make good films. The weak script and mise en scène undermine the humanist project of the film. In terms of genre, Free Men is perhaps a thriller but the moments of suspense and intrigue are few and far between. It’s probably best to think of it as a psychological drama, but without the tension you would expect from that genre.
One of the problems with the film is that it frequently initiates potentially interesting plot strands only to seemingly leave those ideas as non-sequiturs, with the result that the film wastes several opportunities for emotional impact. For example, Younes sees a young man coming out of Salim’s room. He is shocked and reacts badly but when he sees Salim again he apologises for his reaction. But that is it. It was hardly worthwhile to raise the question of Younes’s gayness if nothing was going to be done with it in the film. Likewise, Younes is attracted to Leila, a young woman in the mosque. We discover that far from being the submissive Muslim female, she is a leading member of the Algerian Communist Party who sees the resistance against the Nazis as a stage in the liberation of Algeria. She is arrested and Younes witnesses her being taken away. It’s not as if we’re expecting an all-guns-blazing rescue à la John Wayne but it’s frustrating that this narrative strand, once raised, is frittered away.
The film also suffers from its low budget (around €8 million) for a period piece. For example, the liberation of Paris – which many cinemagoers will be familiar with both from documentary footage as well as a number of fiction films – is evoked as well as it could be with a few dozen extras, lots of flags and, I think, three vehicles, one of which looked vaguely military.
My overall impression of the film is that it felt like an earnest TV movie. It is bland and inoffensive, qualities you wouldn’t normally associate with Resistance films. Usually when I watch such films (and I’m thinking in particular of Jean-Pierre Melville’s marvellous Army of Shadows (L’armée de l’ombre, 1969)), I have a kind of trepidation at the likely scenes of torture and degradation. We were spared these on the whole but at the expense of involvement in the drama. The only real suspense I recall in the film is the scene of the evacuation of those in hiding being led down through the tunnels to a boat on the Seine which leads them to relative safety in Algeria.
One of the strong points of the film was performance. Lonsdale is as good as he was in Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux, Xavier Beauvois, 2010). And Tahir showed he is a subtle and intense actor who is capable of demonstrating a range of emotions. The progression he makes from barely literate factory worker to full-fledged revolutionary is by far the most captivating aspect in an otherwise plodding screenplay
I should add that, despite a good familiarity with the Occupation and Resistance in World War 2 France, I was completely unaware of the role of the Paris Central Mosque and I have the film to thank for that. And I liked the North African music a lot.