Judge Joe Armenio visits the suburbs of Paris, but there's nary a barbecue grill in sight.
"No chance and no love."
Abdel Kechiche's L'Esquive ("The Evasion"), retitled Games of Love and Chance by its American distributor after the Pierre Marivaux play which its teenagers perform, caused a stir at the 2005 Cesar Awards (the French equivalent of the Oscars), where it won four prizes, including Best Film and Best Director. The victory of this low-budget, low-key film about French-Arab teenagers has been ascribed by its critics to liberal bias and white guilt, but that's silly; it's a thoughtful, subtle and mature film. While I'm glad it was recognized, I'm a little shocked that the voters went for a movie so lacking in conventional drama. Anyway, its victory makes the French voters look like geniuses compared to the American Academy, whose racially-charged surprise winner in 2005 was the shallow, ludicrous, bombastic Crash.
Facts of the Case
While the word "suburb" conjures up images of middle-class affluence for Americans, in France "suburb" refers to projects inhabited by poor minorities; Games of Love and Chance deals with teenagers living in one such suburb of Paris. The main character is Krimo (Osman Elkharraz), who has just broken up with his girlfriend Magalie (Aurelie Ganito) and develops a crush on Lydia (Sara Forestier, the only member of Kechiche's cast with previous acting experience). Lydia is performing the lead in a class production of Marivaux's Games of Love and Chance and Krimo takes a part in the play in order to get close to her. His advances cause Magalie to become jealous, which leads to increasing tension between rival groups of friends.
First of all, it's important to note that appreciating Games of Love and Chance requires a certain amount of imagination on the part of non-French-speakers (such as myself). The teenagers (so I've read, at least) talk in a rich, slangy dialect that's impossible to render accurately in English: the translators here have opted for a sort of variation on African-American "street" dialect ("phat," "fly," etc.), with some random Britishisms ("I don't give a toss") and miscellaneous slang ("wicked good") thrown in. The translations are not always ideal and are a bit frustrating in their inconsistency, but they're not distractingly poor, either.
Language, of course, is essential here; much of the film consists of the teenagers either spouting Marivaux's highly flowery words or arguing amongst themselves, trading insults in their own patois. These arguments, mostly over romantic entanglements and other encroachments on groups' respective territories, can be criticized as tediously repetitive, made even more irritating by Kechiche's tight, claustrophobic framing and quick cutting. It soon becomes clear, though, that this is exactly the point: these are kids who are mired in poverty, unable to escape, and whose frustrations emerge as a preening, defensive hostility to anyone seen as a threat. Their arguments are carefully organized rites, performed in a ritual language, performances enacted for the benefit of the group, in which the combatants pretend to have power. They are, like all rituals, highly repetitive and formalized. This is where Marivaux comes in: as their teacher says, Marivaux's comedies are about people ! who pretend, who wear masks in order to woo a partner who is not of their social class. In the end, though, however much one pretends, no one can escape the class into which he was born: the rich marry the rich and the poor marry the poor. "No chance," she says, "and no love."
It's a pretty bleak vision and Kechiche is admirable in his refusal to give the audience respite from the undramatic frustration of his characters' lives. He avoids the cliches of the "gang picture"; the kids are fairly hostile to each other but they're not hard-eyed killers or drug dealers, and he resists the temptation to allow the plot's tension violent release. I won't give too much away, but there is one scene involving harassment by the cops that is all the more harrowing for resolving itself in a thoroughly uncathartic way that seems less like the movies and more like real life. This is also not an "inspirational" picture of the Dangerous Minds ilk; the performance of the play serves both as metaphor and as a vehicle for the plot, but it offers none of the cheap, consoling "redemption" of Hollywood films.
Kechiche coaxes excellent performances from the cast, with the standout
being Forestier, who is both formidable and vulnerable. She conveys with an
impressive hauteur Lydia's commitment to
Krimo is the only character whose home life we (briefly) see. We learn that his father is in prison and his mother is exhausted from supporting the family by herself; these scenes are fairly obvious and seem like leftovers from another, more conventional, film. At the beginning of the film I also questioned Kechiche's reliance on jittery editing and hand-held camerawork, which has become a sort of stylistic shorthand for "edginess"; I wonder if some of his scenes might have seemed even more hermetic if filmed with a fixed, observational camera, but Kechiche's rhythms grew on me as the film went along.
New Yorker presents the film in an anamorphic transfer which looks acceptable, but there is occasionally some ghosting. The 2.0 soundtrack gets the job done, and English subtitles are optional. The only extras are foreign and English trailers (interesting exercises in marketing: the French trailer makes it look like a cute romantic comedy, while the English one suggests Important Foreign Art Film).
I've seen a few good French films lately which deal with racial issues: Raymond Depardon's 10th District Court and Michael Haneke's Cache, as well as Games of Love and Chance, are among the most prominent. They're very different films, made by filmmakers from different backgrounds (Depardon is "French-of-French-ancestry," Haneke is Austrian, and Kechiche was born in Tunisia), but they share the virtues of intelligence, thoughtfulness, and lucidity. There's not much room for "hope" in any of these clear-eyed portraits of hierarchy and its discontents, but there's artistry to burn, and that's cause enough for hope in my book.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• English Trailer
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