France (2018) Dir. Philippe Faucon
The most I have been away from my own home is two weeks so I can’t imagine what it must be like to leave an entire life behind for a prolonged period of time, especially if it is to earn money for your family. This French film explores the migrant experience as well as offering a glimpse of life for the families left behind.
Amin (Moustapha Mbengue) is a Senegalese migrant with a wife and three children back home all depending on the meagre wage he earns from working in construction. Stuck in a hostel with other men from African nations in the same situation as him, Amin works hard and lives a modest life yet has embraced a lot about French life, which becomes apparent on the regular trips back home to his struggling village.
His wife Aisha (Mareme N’Diaye) is having a hard time raising their three daughters alone and begs Amin to take them back to France with him but Amin refuses with a number of excuses. The truth is, as homesick as he may be, at least Amin isn’t stuck in a hopeless slum – that and he has just begun an affair with divorced nurse Gabrielle (Emmanuelle Devos) whose garden he is currently renovating.
It seems to be a current trend in French cinema to make films addressing the issue of immigration, focusing on the African and Arab community. It is certainly a change from portraying them as drug smuggling villains in a crime thriller though that at least makes them somewhat interesting. This is not a cruel slight against these characters, rather an observation on director Philippe Faucon’s sedate approach to this film.
When an affair is the most newsworthy development in your story, all signs are pointing towards it underperforming as a potent drama, if indeed that is what Faucon is aiming for, which unfortunately is hard to discern. It is over thirty minutes plus before Gabrielle appears to establish where the story is going – quite a long time for a film that only runs 87 minutes and needs something to hook the audience with.
Prior to this, the setting of Amin as a hard worker surrounded by his fellow migrants, each with their own woes of homesickness and ennui, is the purpose of the opening act, which finds the time to take in a trip back to Senegal, presented surprisingly as a much brighter and more vivid world than the dour greyness of the building sites of Paris. The women wear brightly coloured dresses, the sun is shining, and the sky is blue, making their squalid existence a sad juxtaposition.
Amin is welcomed back with open arms, not just because he has money and gifts, he is genuinely missed, yet he continues to insist the two worlds are kept separate, raising concerns in Aisha’s eyes. In his absence, Amin’s brother oversees the family situation, revealing the oppression Senegalese women face. They may not be forced to cover up like Muslim women, but the patriarchal mentality is alive – for instance, married women seen in public alone with other men is considered scandalous.
This gives Aisha a chance to show some fire as she questions her brother-in-law about Amin’s possible infidelity in France which he disputes – perhaps out of genuine ignorance but more likely enforcing the archaic double standards of their religious tenets – demanding she be the good little housewife as expected of her. If only this wasn’t a one off moment that has little effect to the overall narrative.
Back in Paris and the central love affair is a curious one as it isn’t based on lust, but a shared loneliness. Amin misses this aspect of his married life but has never strayed; Gabrielle is divorced, sharing custody of her teenage daughter (Fantine Harduin) with her ex-husband (Samuel Churin). Even the terse sex scenes are devoid of any sweaty energy, the post coital satisfaction imperceptible on both their faces, posing the question “What is the point then?”.
Elsewhere, Amin’s life is cruelly paralleled by that of aging Moroccan co-worker Abdelaziz (Noureddine Benallouche), married and raised two daughters in France yet yearns for his homeland. Whilst his family have never known Morocco, Abdelaziz has not managed to acclimatise to France as well as they have, his sense of isolation coming from not having anyone to understand is feelings.
However, it is because the film is so short that this subplot is more a time filler than the poignant adjunct to the main storyline, its potential for greater development as a central premise criminally undermined. This is not to impugn the importance of Amin’s plight but the fact this one has a definite resolution and Amin’s ends on ambiguous note, there is an argument to be made Faucon may have chosen to tell the wrong story.
Of course this is something for audiences to decide on their own, though I do believe it can be widely agreed that Faucon’s deliberate, sparse direction, plodding pacing and lack of any real excitement only half works. Not every story based around an affair needs to feature heaving bodies and angsty melodrama but it is difficult to make people care when it is as anodyne as this one.
Faucon uses a largely non-professional first time cast for the migrant roles which usually pays off but in this case only partially so. Moustapha Mbengue turns in a solid debut but often seems overwhelmed leading a film. Mareme N’Diaye appears a better prospect as does Noureddine Benallouche, though there is nothing to say Mbengue won’t improve in the future. Luckily Emmanuelle Devos is there to do most of the heavy lifting but even this usually fearless actress comes across as subdued.
Amin might tackle a topical subject and tries to be different by dialling back the drama but suffers from having nothing new to say or make much of an impact to stand out among the current wave of similarly themed films.