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Posts Tagged ‘Charlotte Gainsbourg’

Following the dismal events of the last few days, a trip to the cinema to see something genuinely diverting and perhaps even a bit uplifting definitely seemed like a good idea, but somehow none of the industrially-tinged blockbusters occupying the multiplexes felt like they would do the trick. Full-on escapism would have felt oddly inappropriate too. In the end, and prompted mainly by a rather engaging trailer, I ended up going to see Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s Samba, a film about the life of an illegal immigrant living in modern-day Paris. An odd choice, perhaps? Well, maybe.

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Our main character is Samba Cisse (Omar Sy), a Senegalese man who has been living in France for the last ten years, and who as the film opens has just applied for a residence permit. All that results is a very swift trip to a facility for holding illegal immigrants and an appointment in front of a judge. It also leads to a meeting with Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a businesswoman taking a sabbatical after a fairly severe bout of executive stress, who is helping people in Samba’s position. Despite the strict instructions of her colleague Manu (Izia Hegelin) not to get too involved with their clients, Alice finds herself providing Samba with cereal bars,¬†sleeping pills and her phone number.

The somewhat byzantine workings of the French immigration system result in Samba being released, under strict instructions to leave French territory, but with no actual requirement to do so. He opts to stay in Paris and somehow try to scrape a living without drawing the attention of the authorities, which is a little tricky given he doesn’t have an actual work permit. Nevertheless, Samba and his best friend Wilson (Tamar Rahim) embark on a string of jobs in the black economy, even as the two of them get to know Alice and Manu rather better. But with the odds so heavily stacked against them, is there any real hope of long-term happiness?

If you turn up to see Samba, you will find many things awaiting you, but I would not be discharging my responsibilities if I left you with the impression that political impartiality was one of them. This is not a film attempting to give a balanced view of the immigration debate. The directors set out their stall in a very assured opening shot, in which the camera moves in a single take from a wedding reception in full swing – all careless affluence, glamour, self-indulgence and delight – into the depths of the kitchens of the hotel in which it is being held, finally settling on Samba, doing the hot, exhausting, filthy job of a kitchen porter. (Perhaps my own experiences working in the restaurant trade have left me a little biased.) Illegal migrant workers, the film suggests, are largely invisible – largely because they have to work very hard to be so – but they are every bit as human as the rest of us, with the same capacity for hope, joy, guilt and despair.

What stops Samba from being a strident, one-note piece of agitprop is that it doesn’t just bang on and on about the unfairness of the lot of immigrants. The thing that makes it, I think, a very fine film indeed, is that it does attempt to capture the totality of the experience of all the characters involved – there are some tough scenes, and perhaps even heartbreaking moments, but also ones of delight and camaraderie, and scenes both comic and touching. The central strand of the plot is the slowly-developing relationship between Samba and Alice, but this is far from the sole focus of the film, which sometimes feels almost soap-opera like in its profusion of storylines and characters. Not all of the elements of the narrative feel fully developed, but there is at least an attempt to present the numerous characters – not just the four leads, but also Samba’s uncle, and various other characters from the immigration support agency – fairly and in depth. There are no good guys or bad guys here, just people trying to find their own way to happiness.

The downside to the freewheeling, episodic structure is that the conclusion of the film perhaps feels a little contrived, but by this point – if you’re anything like me – you will feel so invested in the characters that you’ll be more than willing to cut the film some slack on this point. This is surely largely due to the performances of the leads: Sy and Gainsbourg are both utterly convincing and highly engaging – and, in Sy’s case, hugely charismatic as well. It’s no surprise to me that Sy has already started appearing in American movies (nor much of a surprise that these are fairly undemanding popcorn movies like Days of Future Past and Jurassic World).

Perhaps Samba does work a bit too hard to look on the bright side, but it’s still a film which is filled to the brim with warmth and compassion and the love of living, things which are often either wholly absent from commercial Anglophone cinema, or at least feel counterfeit. It’s by no means perfect, but it gets all the important things right, and watching it is a memorable and – yes – uplifting experience. We read a lot of fairly negative things about France in the British press these days, but any country capable of making a film like this one has got at least something going for it.

 

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Well now, the sun is shining and the UK is basking in wholly unseasonable good weather. The scent of barbecues drifts gently on the afternoon breeze and the sound of young people at play floats up to the window of my attic. All is well with the world. In these circumstances, what could make more sense than to talk about the futility of existence and the destruction of all life as we know it, both things which feature strongly as elements of Lars von Trier’s latest offering, (wait for it) Melancholia.

Kirsten Dunst plays Justine, a young PR woman who’s just getting married to a man who’s clearly devoted to her. They arrive for their wedding reception at a golfing hotel owned by her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland), which is where nearly all the movie takes place. Numerous friends of Justine are present, along with members of her family, and an ostentatiously dysfunctional bunch they are too.

As the evening goes on it becomes clear that not all is well with Justine: she seems to be struggling, merely going through the motions and not as happy as she affects to be. Amongst other things, she keeps sneaking off to secluded parts of the golf course to do things that would outrage the greenkeepers if they found out about them. She develops a strange fixation with the sky, and an odd sensitivity to something anomalous happening to the constellation Scorpio.

Some time later, we find that Justine is in a state of near-catatonic depression and being cared for by her sister and brother-in-law. The wider world is anticipating a more significant event: the approach from deep space of a new planet, Melancholia, which is due to pass close to Earth in only a few days time. The coming of the new world has different effects on the two sisters: Claire becomes increasingly nervous, while Justine seems to make a recovery. Claire’s husband assures her not to worry – there is no danger of the two planets colliding.

He is of course wrong, and the audience is fully aware of this from the start. The most striking and memorable sequence in Melancholia is at the very beginning, when apocalyptic tableaux depicting heaven and earth in chaos and concluding with the annihilation of the planet unfold, all to the strains of Wagner on the soundtrack (the relevance of von Trier’s choice of music, given the ongoing is-he-or-isn’t-he-a-Nazi-sympathiser debate, I leave to others to decide). We know how this is all going to end even as it begins.

So, you may be wondering, what’s the point of it all? A very reasonable question, and I think to some extent this movie reviews itself – the plot is about the extinction of life as we know it, the theme is the effects of depression, and the name of the thing is Melancholia – what do you think it’s like to watch?

However, that said, there is much interesting stuff going on here. All the stuff about the dysfunctional family and co-workers in the first half does feel a bit stagey and contrived but it does at least partially explain Justine’s depression, which for a long while was what I thought this film was about. Her slide into ill-health begins as the first signs of Melancholia’s approach become apparent (even the name of the planet is a bit of a giveaway) – you could even interpret this as the planet being her illness made manifest, drawn down out of the depths of space. Certainly her reaction to Melancholia’s approach seems one almost of rapture rather than disquiet: one striking scene has Claire discovering Justine basking in the light it gives off.

And yet the second half of the film is Claire’s story as much as Justine’s, and Claire’s response to the looming cosmic encounter is much more straightforward. It’s the difference that is crucial here, I suppose – calm acceptance as opposed to nervous agitation. Certainly the film strongly suggests that the more rational your mind, the less well-equipped you are to cope with extraordinary circumstances like these.

This is a hard film to categorise – the very vague plot similarities with the likes of Armageddon and Roland Emmerich’s oeuvre have led some to go down the route of ‘hmm, SF and psychology – must be a bit like Solaris, then’. This seems fairly fatuous to me as the level of accuracy in the celestial mechanics is about what you’d expect from an episode of Space: 1999. A much better comparison, to my mind, would be with Black Swan – both are to some extent about mental health issues, both feature striking performances from actresses best known for much more mainstream fare, and both toy with genre material for their own ends (though I should point out that Melancholia features considerably less ballet dancing and girl-on-girl action).

Kirsten Dunst is extremely good in what must have been a fairly challenging role, but Charlotte Gainsbourg is equally accomplished in a less showy part. Von Trier has managed to attract an extremely strong cast – John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, Udo Kier, Jesper Christensen – who do the best they can with some faintly melodramatic material. This does add to a faint sense of artifice throughout – von Trier isn’t afraid to repeatedly remind you that you’re watching a movie – but given this is established from practically the first moment it’s not really a problem.

But it does feel like it goes on forever without a great deal of importance actually happening for long stretches at a time, and given the Big Themes that are not terribly subtly woven into the story, I was hoping that in the end the film would have something more significant to say than actually appears to be the case. It’s a stunning-looking movie with some very strong performances in it, and it may well be that with Melancholia Lars von Trier has made another profound and very important cinematic statement. But if he has, I have absolutely no idea what it is.

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