France (2014) Dirs. Olivier Nakache & Eric Toledano
Immigration is a tricky subject to make a rom-com out of and the directors of the international crowd pleaser Untouchable don’t exactly deliver much of one, but they do present a thoughtful and conscientious yarn about finding love when the political system is against you.
Senegalese emigrant Samba Cissé (Omar Sy) has been living in France for 10 years with his chef uncle Lamouna (Youngar Fall), working menial jobs to send money back home to his family. Whilst aiming for legal residency a mess up by the immigration office sees Samba in a holding home for having incomplete papers.
Assigned to Samba’s case is Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a former corporate worker recovering from a recent breakdown brought on by stress and personal issues. Despite having been told to keep her distance from her clients, a mutual attraction forms between the two but fate has a funny way of ensuring it is a relationship that is doomed to fail.
There is no denying that Olivier Nakache & Eric Toledano know how to tell compelling and affecting tales that play on our sympathies as Untouchable demonstrated, but this time they aim to get a little political in their narrative. However, while the opening act suggests this might be a French take on a Ken Loach style social drama, the remainder of the film begs to differ.
From his first appearance, we see that Samba is earnestly trying to pay his way, working as a dishwasher at the end of the line in a posh hotel kitchen, along with other black workers, the first overt political statement of the film. Having been given the wrong papers lands Samba a stint in detention, where he meets Jonas (Isaka Sawadogo) who he came to France to marry his native sweetheart for his residency.
Upon her return to work Alice is under the supervision of the younger Manu (Izïa Higelin), a pierced and tattooed girl with a short wick fuelled by her burning sense of injustice. Unfortunately, for Samba Manu hands the job over to Alice whose nervy disposition, reliance on a multitude of sleeping pills and inexperience doesn’t fill him with much confidence.
A little later on, during a cosy midnight chat following a mutual shouting match at each other, Alice confides in Samba the cause of her breakdown and the violent way she handled it, revealing a different Alice to the one he currently knows. It is Alice’s restraint in accepting her burgeoning feelings for Samba, and his insistence for not rocking the boat that makes this a slow burning romance around which to build the main plot.
There are sporadic moments of passionate interaction between the two but they spend more time keeping it civil and platonic. For whatever reason, Nakache and Toledano seem unable to create any scenario to inspire any sense of support from the audience for the couple, and we find ourselves unmoved and ambivalent towards this polite romance, the only edge it has is in it being a mixed race affair.
Spicing things up a little elsewhere is Wilson (Tahar Rahim), a cheeky fellow immigrant who claims he is South American but isn’t, but has all the charm and moxie to win people over. He blags a window-cleaning job for Samba then shows him his party trick: dancing for the girls in an office block on the scaffold half way up the side of the building a’la the old Diet Coke ad!
Wilson also leads Samba into a bit of trouble, proving much of the comic antics which don’t always hit the target and often serve to undermine the seriousness of the film’s central message. Not that some levity isn’t welcome, it is better employed when it comes from exploring the character’s personalities, such as Alice and Manu’s co-workers at the staff party, whose aged obliviousness delivers a few charming laughs.
Returning the main theme of the struggle of illegal immigrants, the scene shifts quite abruptly to show how some people try to help while others either exploit their situations. Cash in hand jobs like labour and handiwork prompts fierce competition but very few winners while the likes of Wilson look out for their friends. Outside of this self-contained world the same folk who moan about immigration are happy to pay then a pittance to do all the jobs they don’t want to.
In more able and provocative-minded hands, this could have been a probing drama that exposes the double-edged sword immigrants have to balance on, and perhaps explore the difference between the truly earnest and those on the take. Nakache and Toledano don’t scrimp on the drama and do put Samba in harm’s way on a few occasions but the incisive bite isn’t there, preferring instead to try to replicate the feel-good magic of Untouchable instead.
An always reliable and watchable actress, Charlotte Gainsbourg is at her best when portraying Alice’s neurotic and frail side, keeping her bumbling side on the right of side the humour but sadly isn’t giving enough time to explore Alice’s true depths. The nervous chemistry Gainsbourg creates with Omar Sy however is robust enough to give her character a lift and add provide the requisite charm to satiate the rom-com remit.
Omar Sy may have been a co-star in Untouchable but this is his film. Not just a physical towering presence he commands the screen too, handling the comedy, drama and emotional scene with equal aplomb. He displays charm, fire, anger and heart and connects with everyone he shares the screen with as well as with the audience, clearly making the most out of this opportunity.
In conclusion, there is nothing inherently wrong with Samba – maybe a little shorter run time – as a light comedy drama, but one sense that the idea was to actively say something before deciding it was safer to play with conventions instead. A well-meaning and amiable film that just needed more conviction in its voice.