Sunday 7 March 2021

Alliance Française French Film Festival 2021 - Tom Ryan reports on two standouts - POLICE (Anne Fontaine) and CINQUIÈME SET (Quentin Reynaud)

Anne Fontaine

Two choice options for anyone planning on attending the 2021 Alliance Française French Film Festival currently unspooling around the country. One by a veteran of the French industry, 61-year-old Luxembourg-born, Lisbon-raised, Paris-based Anne Fontaine, her 17th feature; the other by a relative newcomer, 38-year-old Bordeaux-born Quentin Reynaud, his second feature (and the best new film I’ve seen so far this year).


Fontaine’s Police (being presented as Night Shift) takes up a recurring concern in her work: to do with characters whose emotional lives are as much of a mystery to themselves as they are to others. As in Comme J’ai Tué Mon Père (2001), Entre ses Mains (2005), a reworking of Claude Chabrol’s classic Le Boucher (1970) – although she says the similarities are entirely inadvertent – Natalie. . . (2003, remade in 2009 by Atom Egoyan as Chloe), Coco Avant Chanel (2009) and Gemma Bovery (2014), the central characters in Police are uncomfortable in their own skins. Their personal circumstances cast them as outsiders and they’re uncertain about the obligations their professional roles impose on them.


Based on a 2016 novel by Hugo Boris, the film pivots on the experiences of four individuals: Virginie (Virginie Efira), Aristide (Omar Sy) and Erik (Gregory Gadebois) belong to the Paris police force; Asomidin Tohirov (Payman Maadi) is a detainee who’s fled to France from Tajikstan and whom they’ve been assigned to deliver to the Charles de Gaulle airport for deportation. During the course of the film, which moves back and forth in time, sometimes even revisiting incidents from a different character’s vantage point, we learn much about the police, but next to nothing about their passenger. He’s still very much a character in his own right, but he’s also a catalyst for the changes that take place in his custodians.


Virginie’s life is a mess. As we see near the start, her marriage is on the rocks. Her husband (Cedric Vieira) is angry about having to look after their child while she’s at work, and she’s about to have an abortion after falling pregnant to Aristide. He’s an amiable jokester, but prone to panic attacks, uncomfortable when he learns of her plans but keeping his views to himself. Also unhappy at home, Erik is a reformed alcoholic for whom life generally seems a trial. In another context, he’d just be the gruff cop on a short fuse, but Fontaine makes him much more interesting than that.

Omar Sy, Virginie Efira, Police

For them all, work serves as their sanctuary, its rules framing their responses and governing their conduct. They don’t have to think too much about what they’re doing. They can allow procedure to dictate their behaviour rather than making choices independent of what the rules might say. Until their assignment with Tohirov forces them to reassess their roles in their world. 


Their job no longer provides them with an escape hatch after Virginie sneaks a look at the file they’ve been given to take with him to the customs officials waiting at the airport. She discovers that it’s likely that their job has made them complicit in sending him to a certain death back in Tajikstan and shares this information with her colleagues. 


Police is, at its affecting heart, a film about the characters’ struggles to come to terms with the hands they’ve been dealt. Tohirov is at an overwhelming disadvantage. He speaks no French and has no sense of the impact his situation has had on the three officers who’ve taken charge of him. He understands that he’s in their custody, but, when they step out from behind their uniforms and begin to reveal a human side, he can make no sense of what’s happening. He’s defined by his fearful, uncomprehending look.


However, the same kind of uncertainty features far less during the other characters’ interactions, underscoring the cultural chasm between Tohirov and those around him. They talk to each other, but it’s what’s not said that is, more often than not, critical to their exchanges, the meanings that explode from between the lines, that they understand all too well. 


For example, during the single domestic sequence between Virginie and her husband, she’s in the bathroom taking a shower. He comes in and asks about arrangements for their planned dinner that evening with his mother. From behind the shower curtain, she asks, “It’s this evening?” At which point he stomps out. She hasn’t said it, but he knows exactly what she means.


Police is pervaded by an air of restlessness, literally embodied in the way Fontaine has the characters constantly on the move, forever driving around Paris in police cars and vans. As they do, the city is persistently reflected on the windows of the vehicles, often distorted in the process, almost a blur in which they’re somehow adrift. Conversations unfold without characters looking at each other, except when they’re sharing glances via the rear vision mirror. It’s not by chance that even the film’s title is presented as a mirror reflection. That’s a fitting entry point for an intense drama about individuals seemingly lost in a maze of reflections, grappling with the rules and procedures that enclose them.

Quentin Reynaud

Life is much clearer and more grounded but no easier for Thomas Edison (Alex Lutz), the 37-year-old protagonist of writer-director Reynaud’s Cinquième set/Final Set. A professional tennis player, he’s in no doubt about what he wants from his life. Eighteen years earlier, he’d lost the final at the French Open and since then he’s been coaching at the tennis school run by his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) and struggling to recover from the crippling knee injury that has scuttled his career. His goal as the film begins is to make up for lost time. And after he’s given a wild card to the French Open, he’s on his way. He’s into the qualifiers. 


Victory means he can become one of the 128 who go into the final draw. It’s a long, hard slog, and the film makes you feel it, the unsteady hand-held shooting style infusing it with a life-on-the-edge flavour and lending an evocative grittiness to Thomas’s quest. The soundtrack plays its part here too, the squishing noise of the players’ footwear skidding across the court surfaces combining with their exhausted grunts to suggest some strange ancient form of combat, the sounds of their strokes reverberating like gunshots.


But this is not a reassuring star-is-reborn saga. Reynaud (who also plays Thomas’s coach) is more interested in the stresses that befall players and their families than in providing a comforting happy ending. And much of the film deals with Thomas’s relationship with his wife (Ana Girardot), a former tennis player who’s given up her career for him and who perfectly reasonably suggests that maybe it’s now her turn. And with his mother, who’d stood behind him when he was a promising youngster and had been just as dismayed as he was when his injury shattered his career.


There’s a lot of tennis in the film, both on the courts where he teaches (and where a very impressive junior gets to show off his skills) and at the Roland-Garros Stadium in Paris (a prize coup for the film which has the backing of the French Tennis Federation). And, for the first time I can recall in any movie I’ve seen about the game, the actors play like real tennis players, especially in the extended closing sequence which has Thomas slugging it out in the final qualifying play-off against his nemesis, a 17-year-old rising star (Jürgen Briand), on the seriously scrambled clay surfaces of court no. 14 at Roland-Garros. 


Incredibly, the press information for the film notes that Lutz had never played tennis before he embarked on a four-month training schedule for the role. As far as I could tell, there are no stand-ins lending him support, the protracted wide-shots of games in progress perfectly matching the cut-in close-up replays. If his future in film doesn’t work out, then he looks to have a ready-made alternative career. 


Alex Lutz, Cinquième set

Both on and off court, the film’s depiction of the trials of the tennis professional facing an uncertain future seems perfectly judged: his escalating but understated desperation over the success that threatens to remain just out of reach; his wife’s challenge to him to “come down to earth”; their money problems; the sponsors gathering like vultures as he shows signs of becoming a star attraction; the press eagerly looking for a lead (“So you think you’re another Jimmy Connors?”). Perhaps the most telling scene of all (aside from the superb, uncompromising, thought-provoking ending) has Thomas chatting with a former player-turned commentator, earnestly asking, “Do you miss it?”


The film grew from Reynaud’s experience of an ankle injury that killed off his ambition to be more than a social tennis player. He explained his now more modest goal to Parisien: “If Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic like the film, then I will be satisfied.” I’d be astonished if they didn’t. 


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.