Living at the end of the world, The Intouchables or Intouchables (2011) has only just reached me. In another world, I might have died before I had the chance. Such are the uncertainties of life for those of us who have grown old and/or are disabled. We live from day to day with little to distinguish one from the next. Time blurs. Those of us with a less positive view wait with whatever patience we can muster for the end. We daydream, thinking back to how life used to be before our bodies let us down. When we were young, little seemed impossible. We ran and jumped. If we fell, there was someone to pick us up. The body healed itself. We never gave it a second thought. Then for people like Philippe (François Cluzet) in this film, all that is over in an instant. For him, it was an accident while paragliding. For us oldies, it’s the slow descent into physical incompetence. It starts with little things like twinges in the joints when we decide we can catch the bus if we run, and develops into the need to take life at a more sedate pace. We have to assess whether we can get up again if we crouch down, or will fall down if we stand up too quickly. And all this time we have to live with the memories of what it was like to live in a body that obeyed us without conscious thought. Being deprived of that freedom leaves us trapped in the body as a kind of prison. At least I can still move around. Philippe is a quadriplegic so the prison is escape-proof.
The other protagonist, Driss (Omar Sy), is just as much a prisoner but for entirely different reasons. At an early age, he was sent over to France to be adopted by his Uncle and Aunt. Unfortunately, the previously childless couple then produced a family. This left Driss out in the emotional cold. He grows up in one of les banlieues, I use the word to describe one of the Parisienne sink estates largely populated by the poor in high-density, low-quality accommodation. He’s immersed in a culture of prejudice and intolerance, and grows into a victimised adult living up to the middle and upperclass expectations of surly dependence. No-one gives him a chance so he’s socially alienated, powerless and deeply resentful. When he’s sent to a job interview as a carer, he’s only going through the motions to gain access to the benefit payments. Indeed, he never expects to return to this upperclass home again, which is why he feels free to steal one of the Fabergé eggs openly displayed. It therefore comes as something of a shock to him when he’s offered the job. This nicely catches him in the benefit trap. If he turns down the offer, he’s barred from claiming benefits. To preserve his rights he must work for not less than two weeks and not be dismissed. To complete the culture shock, he must live in and, for the first time in his life, actually gets a bathroom of his own.
Why should a rich man hire such a “useless specimen of humanity” as his carer? The answer comes through the interviews with the other men applying for the job. Without exception, they are completely useless. Indeed, if anyone like them applied for a job as my carer, I would be reaching for my gun (assuming I was not a quadriplegic, of course). There’s something genuinely appalling about the smug and sanctimonious air of do-goodery that afflicts many professional carers. They give the impression they are doing you a favour by even sharing the same air as you. Driss, on the other hand, is oblivious to Philippe’s injury and has absolutely no pity in his reaction to meeting him. It’s a collision between a dependent male barely hanging on to his self-confidence and a young man who’s never had to take responsibility for himself. It later becomes apparent that Driss has always been protective of the children who replaced him in the affection of his adoptive parents. To that limited extent, he’s been a carer. This job is rather different because it involves personal nursing at the sharp end of personal functions — not something Driss has ever thought about in dealing with adults. For him, life is simple. If it’s female, talk her into agreeing to sex. If it’s male and doing something against the “rules”, make your feelings clear by hitting him.
It’s the incongruity of the relationship that makes it so fascinating. They are both men on the margins of society. For Philippe, his disability is a barrier to genuine emotions from his old friends and current colleagues. Their pity offers him nothing but the loss of hope. This invader provides the kind of adventure he never thought he could have again. He’d been a thrill seeker and then found himself wrapped in cotton wool to protect him against even the possibility of further injury. For Driss, his feet are set on the path to career criminal. He will end up either dead or in jail for the rest of his life. This introductory period is nothing more than a burden to be endured until he can safely leave and collect his benefit. Somewhere in the middle, there’s the possibility of minds meeting, a compromise between the cloistered world of classical music and opera where trees burst into song in German and take root on stage for four hours, and a man who thinks Earth, Wind & Fire is a classic group. What then happens is a delightful comedy. Not in the crude, slapstick sense of laughing at a disabled man, but in allowing humour to emerge from the tragedy of the situations as they apply to both men.
Written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano, The Intouchables or Intouchables has collected multiple international awards including the César Award for Best Actor for Omar Sy. For those of you interested in the mundane details, it’s based on the real-world figures Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his carer Abdel Sellou. Philippe has remarried. Abdel has settled down and is running his own chicken farm which, in a perverse kind of way, seems entirely appropriate for someone who was up to his elbows in Philippe’s shit for several years. This is one of the best films I’ve seen in 2012 and it’s rightly the French entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar for the 85th Academy Awards. If you have not already done so, you should make every effort to see this film.
There are several different strategies when it comes to writing a police procedural with thrillerish overtones but, for these immediate purposes, we only need to distinguish two broad approaches. Both involve indomitable heroes with military or espionage backgrounds. We see their lives at peace and then they are plunged into excitement. In the first type, there’s a major incident of some kind which triggers our hero’s involvement. This shakes up the usually dormant community in which he lives (very rarely do we have a heroine). These poor souls have never seen anything like this since. . . All the citizens run around in shock, thinking the sky is falling, and our hero has to spot who’s only pretending to be surprised, corner the villain and then engage in a violent confrontation involving gunfire with optional explosions. In a sense, this gives the featured crime(s) an importance equal to that of the hero. There will be intricate plot elements to unravel involving cross-border terrorists and criminals. Perhaps history will become relevant as we stretch back in time to the wars and militant campaigns of the last generation. However, in all this, the actual geographical context and the characters who populate it are merely ciphers. All action scenes require a place, preferably exotic. People are required as pawns to move around on the chessboard. Many will be sacrificed although some of the major figures may also fall. But they are all rather anonymous, often cardboard stereotypes for whom we feel little or nothing.
The alternate approach is the mirror image except where it comes to the place and the people. There will be an initial event. In The Crowded Grave by Martin Walker (Knopf, 2012) — the fourth in a series featuring Bruno, the Chief of Police — chaos and confusion is caused by the unexpected presence of ducks on the road. Through this incident, we’re introduced to the farming community and begin the slow journey around this “tranquil” community as it becomes the centre of attention. A team of archaeologists has been digging in the area and they make what may be a major find (and, incidentally, dig up a more modern body which seems to have been the victim of an execution by shooting). The world press turns its attention to questions of prehistoric bones and their significance while our hero gets caught up in L’affaire bouillon as another duck farmer’s wife is arrested for making soup, surprisingly with ducks — the Marx Brothers would have approved. As you can see the level of criminal outrages is escalating rapidly. And then there’s the Clochemerle incident in which the new Magistrate is humiliated by the inadvertent spraying of faecal matter following a farmers’ demonstration of outrage at the persecution of one of their own.
Taking a step back, we need to look more carefully at the man at the centre of all this excitement. He’s Benoît “Bruno” Courrèges, a former soldier who has adapted to the slow rhythms of country life. Adjusting the affairs of the community without resorting to anything so crude as an arrest, he stands guard over Saint-Denis — a fictional village in the Dordogne region of France. He’s a pillar of the community, hunting with some of the men, training the local rugby team and occasionally teaching tennis, cooking and exchanging homemade delicacies with all his friends — remember to sing the Marseillaise to ensure frying the ubiquitous foie gras and steaks is timed to perfection. To give our hero something to get his teeth into (apart from the good food, of course), the French and Spanish governments pick this quiet backwater as the site of a meeting to agree new measures for dealing with Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA). The Basque region is close by with nationalists and separatists known to lurk in France and cross over the border when an operation is planned. This high-level Ministerial contact could well attract the attention of predatory ETA members. . . and there’s still the unexplained body — although it’s been in the ground for more than twenty years, it could be someone killed during the so-called Dirty War when a paramilitary Spanish nationalist group assassinated known or suspected terrorists. Now that you come to think of it, this could all escalate into one of these exciting stories with terrorist bombs, shootings, sword fights (why not, it’s set in France which is famous for the Musketeers), and chases. Perhaps our hero could prove himself good in bed and generally step up his game when more than ducks are at stake. Not forgetting, of course, the vital national importance of ducks. The economic contribution of foie gras to France’s wellbeing cannot be overstated and anything threatening that would be treated as potentially treasonous. But with potential terrorists in the area, the ducks must briefly take second place as our hero defends the lives of a couple of Ministers. Then he can get back to the more important stuff of opening a bottle of wine and mucking out the horses.
Summing this up, The Crowded Grave is a bucolic and gastronomic excursion into one of my favourite parts of France. Incidentally, it deals with serious crimes and exposes the political infighting between the different branches of the law enforcement service. But it’s worth reading just for the chance of savouring the atmosphere of the place and meeting some truly memorable people.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Champagne: The Farewell. A Vengeance in the Vineyard Mystery by Janet Hubbard (Poisoned Pen Press, 2012) is the first novel in a series where the intention is to set each investigation in a different wine region in France. Thematically, this is always going to appeal to me. I first went to France back in the 1950s and have been a regular visitor ever since. Although my fluency in the language is diminishing due to lack of practice and the death of brain cells as age advances, I can sill chat away happily albeit with a Belgian accent which, since one kind Frenchman told me, has always been profoundly embarrassing. Who wants to go to France and sound like a renegade from Belgium. Their beer may be fabulous and they do know how to make proper chips, but they do not speak la belle langue.
So where are we with his America/France crossover novel? Well, meet Max Maguire, daughter of Hank who’s something of a legend in the NYPD. She follows in the family business as a detective. Naturally, she’s earned her gold shield and can do more than merely defend herself if attacked. She shoots and fights as well as any other police officer on the force. This is to be expected in thrillerish police procedurals. Women who rise through the ranks must not only be seen to be better than the men, but actually be better. Even so, the men will be angry and resentful when they are passed over. You can’t shake off generations of patriarchal entitlement in a few years. The men assume they are better and so entitled to the highest paid jobs. However, this book is leaping salmonlike into fish-out-of-water territory (love these mixed metaphors) as our heroine takes a break from arresting US perps to jet off to France for a friend’s wedding. The ceremony is to be held in Vallée de la Marne, the central part of the Champagne region, where the family holds one of the prized champagne vineyards.
Max met Chloé Marceau while doing a semester at the Sorbonne but, despite taking language classes, her spoken French is relatively weak. This is odd because her mother is French, but she does at least understand the language and is able to exploit one of the local prejudices. The majority of the French believe the Americans are culturally parochial and incapable of learning a foreign language. Max is therefore able to hide in plain sight and listen into all the conversations around her without anyone suspecting her of eavesdropping. This proves a useful device for innocently collecting information once the murder at the wedding pitches her into the investigation. Even more so because actually working as a detective in a foreign country is one of these thorny jurisdictional problems.
However, Janet Hubbard has given Max an undeclared inside track. Her mother’s sister is married to the French Minister of Justice. As it happens this connection is not immediately played for direct influence, but it’s lurking in the background as she worms her way into the French investigation system. Now I’m not complaining because “ordinary” people would never get the opportunities that come the way of people in books. But, in this instance, our heroine is particularly well-qualified and well-connected. And talking of American connections, it turns out there’s another American at the heart of this little drama. We have Léa de Saint-Pern and Ted Clay — she’s three months pregnant with his child, but this liaison doesn’t save her from being bashed over the head with the usual blunt instrument. The more likely motive revolves around Léa’s decision on whether to sell the vineyard. Lurking in the social undergrowth is Hans Keller, a potential German buyer. Selling to his family would not be popular with the local French, yet the Ministry of Justice prefers this inconvenient buyer not be involved in the investigation. How strange such a high-level fix should be obvious from the first steps in the investigation.
In the midst of all the political infighting which permeates the French criminal justice system, we find Olivier Chaumont. He’s a friend of the family and attending the wedding as part of his plan for slowly returning to social life eight months after his divorce. Despite the real and obvious conflicts of interest in taking an active part in a case involving close friends and family, he’s quickly into his stride. Not surprisingly, this also involves taking a romantic interest in Max. They may come from different cultures but they are both investigators and so naturally feel attracted to each other at a professional level. Fortunately Max is caught in her underwear offering Olivier an early view of how far international co-operation might go and so they are able to give each other alibis for the first murder.
The book is at its best on the economic and political issues surrounding the proposed sale of one of the leading champagne vineyards. There are also questions raised over a possible redefinition of the champagne geography. If the border was to expand and include “ordinary” vineyards, these would spectacularly appreciate in value as being within the champagne Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. Having any of these vineyards owned by some German families would be difficult. Despite the end of the war in 1945, the memories of how some Germans acted when in charge continues to make life difficult for the children and grandchildren when they seek to do business in France — particularly when the business involves one of the French crown jewels in the wine industry.
As to the investigation itself, it’s actually a bit difficult to keep track of all the different characters and where they might have been at the end of the party celebrating the wedding. This is not a criticism. It’s simply a reflection of reality when you have a small château full of drunken and high people partying. No-one is going to be completely clear about who might be where, particularly if some were into a little drugs or anticipating sexual activity. However, by the time we get to the end, it’s become all too clear who the killer is and why. It’s one of these genuinely tragic stories and, although there’s more than a hint of mental instability, we can understand how things could come to this sad outcome. On balance, Champagne: The Farewell is a good first novel and bodes well for Janet Hubbard.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Inspired by the name of a film called The Hedgehog or Le hérisson (2009), I offer the following alternatives: Fish Called Lazarus or The Revenge of the Dry Cleaners (after all, Roland Barthes was run down by a laundry van). Abandoning this somewhat flippant approach, this is a sadly moving and beautifully observed meditation on the obsessive self-interest people develop when they are unhappy. They wrap themselves in their despair and try to hide themselves away. As in all meditations, this film requires people to speak to each other because, through the words, they have a chance to see into each other’s mind. Some insightful person once said the eyes are the window to the soul. It’s been so popular, we’ve adopted it as an idiom. But it was Hiram Powers who added the equally revealing words, “. . .the mouth the door.” The essence of this film is a simple truth. Sometimes a bare minimum of words, carelessly exchanged, can say too much or just enough, depending on your point of view. For the record, the film is based on the novel, L’élégance du hérisson by Muriel Barbery which is fascinating in its own right.
One of the eight luxury flats in this Parisian building has been left vacant thanks to the previous occupant’s sudden heart attack. As the new Japanese tenant, Kakuro Ozo (Togo Igawa) is being introduced to Renée Michel (Josiane Balasko), the consierge, he asks about the Josse family, one of the other tenants. He’s told that the family is unhappy. Without pausing for thought, Renée adds, “Happy families are all alike. . .” He recognises this as being from Anna Karenina, and surprises her by completing it, “. . .but each unhappy family is unique.” (depending on the translation, the end of the quote can be, “. . .but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” — however you translate it, the meaning is essentially the same). Since she has also admitted the name of her cat is Leo (as in Leo Tolstoy), Kakuro immediately assumes she’s a kindred spirit. As an outsider, he looks beyond the role she occupies as a lowly consierge and sees an immensely cultured woman hiding beneath the drab exterior.
Later, the consierge explains the situation to Paloma Josse (Garance Le Guillermic), an eleven-year-old manic depressive in the making, who has decided to kill herself on her twelfth birthday. So long as she conforms to the archetype of a consierge, our “old” lady will be able to hide in plain sight. So every morning, she switches on her television (leaving the sound at its lowest setting so it will not disturb her while she reads). She’s surly to all-comers and, when she’s in the mood, she contrives to fill the entrance hall with the aroma of cassoulet — a hearty peasant casserole dish featuring beans. This means she’s socially invisible in this block of luxury apartments. No-one rich will admit to seeing, let alone actually talking with, such a socially inferior person. Because of her grumpy personality, no-one will dare disturb her unless it’s unavoidable. Hence, Paloma confers the nickname of the Hedgehog — prickly on the outside and sweet once inside the defences.
Indeed, as Paloma counts down towards the day of her suicide, she finds herself drawn to spend time with Madame Michel. In some senses, they are good for each other. The consierge was married but childless. Her husband died of cancer fifteen years earlier. In her loneliness, she’s hidden herself away, surrounded by hundreds of books and videos of classic films from around the world. Paloma is a member of a dysfunctional family. Her father is successful, her mother is in therapy. Her sister is in love and deeply embarrassed by her family. And Paloma? She thinks no-one will miss her if she slips away. The only question is what she should be doing on the day she dies. For her, this is a vital question. Death cannot be just a tawdry event. It must have meaning. To complete the background information, Kakuro’s wife also died of cancer and he’s deeply lonely. He befriends Paloma and they play Go (which Paloma rightly says was invented by the Chinese some two thousand years ago). The child is a kind of bridge between the adults although Kakuro would have tried to befriend Renée anyway.
The question we’re to consider as this drama unfolds is culturally complex. When an outsider asks, can a hermit suddenly leave the “cave” and re-enter the world? She has been cutting her own hair and never wears make-up. She has no clothes other than those required to protect her modesty and allow her to move the rubbish bins around without getting too dirty. Worse, she’s out of the habit of talking with and to people. Since her husband died, she’s deceived herself into thinking she’s worthless so she can act the part convincingly. In this, she not only considers herself. How can she been seen with others when it may cause them embarrassment? These are not questions that can be answered quickly or easily. They go to the heart of what a person has chosen to become and the extent to which society is flexible enough to allow people to step outside their declared roles and become something different.
In this film, ignoring cause and effect, there’s a death. It occurs on the day the person decided it was safe to love again. That’s what makes this film a tragedy. The meaning one draws comes from the affection exchanged before the death. Without that exchange, there would have been no sense of loss in those left behind. They would not have appreciated the need for life to go on, that there can be hope for the future despite the fact people you know and love fall by the wayside. The Hedgehog or Le hérisson (2009) has been a long time in finding its way to my door. It’s beautiful in its simplicity, direct in its honesty and deeply moving in the end. Despite the faults you would find in anyone eleven-years old and her adopted eccentricities, Paloma moves serenely onwards to her appointment with death. It will be a waste to lose someone as intelligent and artistically talented, but that’s her decision. Kakuro finds he misses his wife most on ceremonial occasions like his birthday. And our Hedgehog realises she cannot always hide behind her books and find peace of mind. In all this, the simple piano music provided by Gabriel Yared gently counterpoints what’s happening on the screen, while the deft hand of Mona Achache provides the screenplay and her direction offers understated brilliance.This is a delightful film you should go out of your way to see.
Do people really organise their lives on the basis of what they see others do? When in the market for a girlfriend, I always looked around my circle of acquaintance to see if there was anyone I could talk with. I didn’t sit in a café thinking, “If she orders an apricot juice, I’ll go and ask her for sex.” Obviously, I’m not French enough to appreciate the true significance of apricot juice. Anyway, coming to Delicacy or La délicatesse (2011) this explains how François (Pio Marmaï) picks up Nathalie Kerr (Audrey Tautou). When he approaches her in the café, she says, “I could hear you thinking from here. Have a sip of my juice.” And, before you can say, “Antidisestablishmentarianism”, they are married. She’s given a job by Charles (Bruno Todeschini) because he fancies his chances of getting her into bed. All his plans are, however, put on hold when François is inconveniently mown down while out jogging. So, as in all cases involving tragic death in French films, our heroine goes into mourning overdrive. In the good old days, women in her situation would retreat into a convent to escape the world. Today, these women just bury themselves in their work and keep one friend, Sophie (Joséphine de Meaux) with whom they can share what’s left of their lives. Except, on this occasion, we have a reprise of the old Beauty and the Beast trope.
As a somewhat less than physically attractive man, I’ve always been interested in the screen fantasy of a beautiful young woman falling for me. Fortunately, in my eyes, my wife is very beautiful so, if she should ever read this review, I hope that let’s me off the hook. But in this film, the object of the beautiful Nathalie’s attention proves to be Markus Lundl (François Damiens), a balding bloke from Sweden. He’s older and, despite the occasional early morning run, already starting to carry an excess of weight. Sadly, there’s little spark about him. He’s just so dull he would drag our heroine down rather than inspire her to rise out of her despair like a phoenix. If you were thinking about this in football terms, it would be like Manchester United suddenly deciding it wasn’t going to play any more after Sir Alex Ferguson’s unexpected death. Then, some three years later, Wayne Rooney gets a team of players from the glory days together again. When word is released, there are offers of exhibition matches from Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. After careful thought, Rooney decides to play a friendly against Macclesfield. Yet it’s an incongruity of this magnitude that’s supposed to give this film enough charm to warm the cockles of hearts around the world. Indeed, standing looking at the Eiffel Tower, Markus says Nathalie is like America and he’s Liechtenstein. I happen to think is very unkind to Liechtenstein which is the world’s largest producer of false teeth and a tax haven of great renown.
So, one day, Nathalie opens a desk drawer at work and sees the car keys François used as a surrogate engagement ring. When she looks up and sees Markus, she moves over to him and gives him a long lingering kiss. Afterwards, she claims not to remember doing it. This is a symptom of a major psychological illness. After three years of living like a nun, she would never kiss a random man unless in a dissociative state that disrupts awareness and memory, and produces involuntary behaviour. Indeed, when she and Charles later have an argument about her relationship with Markus and he mentions François, she goes into a fugue state, leaving the office in a daze and going “away”. When she recovers her sanity, she finds herself alone in a car in the countryside near where he grew up as a child. Naturally, she calls Markus to her, dresses him in her grandfather’s clothes and tries to make babies with him in her grandmother’s spare bedroom.
At this point, this film just stops. It’s completely incredible. We needed to see the consequences. Naturally, Nathalie was fired for walking out of the office and losing the contract on a job she’s been working on nonstop for three months. Markus was fired because Charles was pathologically jealous. Sophie, who was a closet gay despite marrying and having a daughter (see her eyes as she watches Nathalie dance and then take the first opportunity to humiliate Markus in front of all her friends), killed Markus in a murder-suicide attack because she couldn’t stand to lose Nathalie to a boring Swedish bloke. And after being denied the right to bring up Sophie’s child as her own, Nathalie finally did retreat into a convent.
A good opening few minutes establishing the happiness between Nathalie and François is completely wasted by David Foenkinos who wrote the original novel and the screenplay (nominated for the César Awards 2012), and his brother Stéphane Foenkinos who shared the directing credits (both nominated as first-time directors for the César Awards 2012). Watching a woman have a mental breakdown is not my idea of entertainment. Of course, I may be completely wrong. Many of you people out there may think it’s perfectly normal for a woman who has been grieving for three years suddenly to throw herself at a older man, and then walk away from her prestigious job promoting Sweden to Europe. In such a case, you are likely to find Delicacy or La délicatesse a delightful romantic drama, once again showing Audrey Tautou at her gamine best. Bruno Todeschini sees straight through Markus. If my understanding of the French was right, he accuses Markus of being a comedian and a fucking poet (it’s meant ironically, of course). And François Damiens gives a breathtakingly convincing performance as the boring bloke (winning the Sarlat International Cinema Festival 2011 for the performance).
When I was young, there was an experimental movement in film-making that we can now authoritatively call cinéma vérité. Both in true documentary and fictional forms, the director’s intention is to maximise the capture of reality on the screen. Some have believed the best way to do this is to hide the cameras. This would mean everything on the screen is unscripted and unrehearsed. All would, of course, be filtered through the director’s eye when it comes to cutting the raw images together and adding a soundtrack. But it would be “real life” on the screen. To a greater or lesser extent, other directors have moved away from this purist position depending on the extent to which they believe the known presence of the cameras affects the behaviour of those being filmed. Today we have “reality” shows on television where cameras follow groups of people in their “everyday” lives. We have been taught how to suspend disbelief given that many of those “captured” are behaving in a surprisingly uninhibited way. Ignoring the game-show formats, some of the more interesting are like Jersey Shore in which we watch people caught in an artificial situation. It’s a form of voyeurism albeit without the more overtly sexual content. Think of it being a voyeurism that breaches the usual presumption of privacy.
One of the features of all forms of reality filming is the use of the hand-held camera. This technique now appears in straight fiction where the intention is to heighten awareness of movement, to make the action feel more dynamic, if not real. One of the most interesting early examples of this style is The Battle of Algiers (1966) in which Gillo Pontecorvo made the film in the style of a documentary. Mostly shot in black-and-white, it’s considered one of the best of the early attempts to create a newsreel style portrayal of real events. Continuing in the theme of the conflict between Algeria and the occupying French, we now come to The Assault or L’assaut (2010), a recreation of the Christmas crisis in 1994 when four Algerian terrorists hijacked Air France Flight 8969 with the intention of crashing it into the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
There are several features which make this film by Julien Leclercq rather interesting. First, he knows his film will be compared to United 93 (2006) in which Americans were invited to confront a piece of their own history in the story of the real-life events on one of the planes hijacked on the 11th September. Both films carefully avoid sensationalising these events of national significance. What we might call melodrama has been limited. But, unlike Paul Greengrass, Julien Leclercq took the decision to include real newsreel footage. This takes us into the same territory occupied by Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), in which Michael Winterbottom uses both real and faked footage to enhance the sense of realism. The question, always, in this kind of film, is the extent to which it’s legitimate to fictionalise history. By definition, the moment you write a script, you are editorialising, deciding what to include or exclude, what emphasis to place on different events and characters. It’s so easy to lionise one side and demonise the other when it comes to stories about terrorism.
On balance, I think Julien Leclercq does a good job as director and joint scriptwriter with Simon Moutairou. The decades of conflict between France and Algeria showed both sides at their worst. That this film, as a French film, emerges with any sense of balance is a testament to the ability of a modern film-maker to forgive the enemies of his country’s past and to embrace both sides as warriors worthy of respect. I say this despite the lack of any background context for these events. I lived through this history with the Organisation de l’armée secrète’s campaign to destabilise the French government and frustrate the movement to independence eventually leading to the Algerian attacks on mainland France. I’m not sure whether this film would have benefitted from two minutes of historical introduction. Modern viewers are rather thrown into this story at the deep end knowing nothing of the background nor of the role of the French intervention force called GIGN (Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale). Although we are now used to the idea of hijacking planes both to force governments to release political prisoners and to crash them into iconic buildings, I suspect a short introductory summary would have enhanced understanding of these events.
The story takes three different strands. The first focuses on Thierry (Vincent Elbaz), a senior member of the elite commando force called the GIGN. He’s under psychological pressure, finding it difficult to cope with his shoot-first, ask-questions-later role. The relationship with his wife and young child adds depth to the character. We then have Carole (Mélanie Bernier) who’s struggling under the appalling weight of sexist discrimination in the Foreign Ministry. She has done the research and understands the risks rather better than her complacent male bosses. But she’s also not wholly ethical, being prepared to offer money to one branch of the terrorist group in the hope this will encourage them to call off the hijacking. Then we have the four terrorists led by Yahia (Aymen Saïdi). They come over as committed but emotionally vulnerable. The scene when Yahia’s mother tries to talk him into giving up is particularly telling. In another place, at another time, these would be good men leading ordinary lives with their families. Because of the lack of historical context, we are left to guess at what would have driven them to engage in this grand gesture of defiance.
The film leads us through the initial stages of the hijack as the four terrorists pray together, then just drive on to the tarmac and board the plane. These were the days before airport security was improved. At first, the Algerian government refuses to allow the plane to leave but, when a French citizen is shot, the French government insists the plane is allowed to fly into France. Now the stage is set for the countdown to the assault. The majority of the passengers were Algerian nationals. The terrorists made no discrimination between innocent and guilty. Everyone on the plane was a hostage. Remarkably, most survived.
There are several features in the final stages of this sad event that remain unclear. Why was the plane allowed to move from where it was first parked in Marseille? Why did the terrorists not simply start killing all the passengers. Why did the GIGN not shoot the terrorists through the windows of the plane? Such questions do not detract from the power of how the operation was concluded. Insofar as anything can be considered a triumph emerging from such a tragedy, this is what happened.
I’m not convinced this is the most entertaining of films. It certainly has no Hollywood pretensions to lift morale and show the “good guys” winning. Shot for much of the time in a pseudo-documentary “black and white”, it desaturates both the colour and, to some extent, the characters so that we can focus on the events as they unfold. This is not about the people so much as about the immediacy of what actually happened. This gives The Assault or L’assaut a raw intensity of emotional power. It commands attention from start to finish. I emerged from the cinema feeling saddened that humans can do such terrible things but heartened that, sometimes, people respond well in difficult situations. For those who enjoy realism, this is as good a film in the style of cinéma vérité as you are likely to see for a long time.
For a more general discussion of what constitutes a documentary, see Should historical films be like documentaries?