Friday 7 October 2022

Streaming on NETFLIX - Barrie Pattison discovers ATHENA (Romain Gavras, France, 2022)

The barricades. Athena

"...its defenders as a human frieze
overlooking the urban battlefield..."

After the home ground success of Ladj Ly’s Les Miserables  account of riots in the
Paris housing projects, we were bound to get a follow up, so Netflix bank rolled the
2022 Athena, part scripted by Ly and directed by Romain Gavras, who has a walk on
in the earlier film.

The reported killing of an Arab boy triggers riots in the French ghettos There’s the
prospect of calling out the army and provocation by right wing elements? Right from
the start, there is no question about this one being a showy, attention getting piece of filmmaking. 

Gavras fils  is distancing himself from his pop clips and his escapist Isabelle
Adjani, Vincent Cassel Le Monde est á toi. This one has significance writ large upon it
and  Netflix are emphasising the connection with Les Miserables. 

We kick off in the middle of the action with the dead boy’s older brother, soldier Dali
Benssalah announcing the murder and calling for calm, when the immigrant population is blaming the police. His dreadlocked activist other brother Sami Slimane disrupts his press conference with a Molotov Cocktail, starting the fire which engulfs the police station they loot for a weapons safe and rockets seen being deployed in the background as the rioters start their continuing single take ride across the city to their base in housing project Athena, bannered biker and horse rider running parallel with their co-opted police wagon on the highway. Just organising and staging this eleven-minute single shot must have taken amazing effort, even allowing for its quota of  CG.  Only in the film’s final exploding high rise is the effects work

The film has some more of these - the drone shot which continues over the parapet to
show its defenders as a human frieze overlooking the urban battlefield, the camera moving through the gaps in the walls smashed into the apartment block where the tenants are reluctant to leave their homes. We again see defenders using digital ‘phone spotters to decide where to dump refrigerators off the roof onto the forces of law below. “We’re done being seen as victims.” There’s a domestic TV still playing in the burning lounge room, showing the news. “The war has already started.” We hear about parallel riots in thirty French cities. “Dijon is in flames.”  

There follows the nighttime entry of see-through plastic shield, singing riot police who find themselves surrounded and petrol bombed. Family man soldier Antony Bajon is among the cops streaming over the wall, become separated and held with his life as a payback hostage (“let’s fuck him up”) and ending stripped of his military outfit, like the lead of  Soy Nero. 

There’s no denying the craft skill - the film makers  get their value out of editing, using  the odd fade and cutting between close-ups of Benssalah, Slimane and their half brother Narco Trafficker, Surkin’s music and the effects merging at the height of the riot, the clear images and sound in complex, difficult filming.

Some of the elements are not as successful - the fanatic found tending the projects’ flower bed, who is the one who knows how to blow the safe and set gas cylinders to explode or Benssalah and hostage Bajon (“If you get him out you’ll be a hero”) shedding their identities under pressure ... the tear on the cheek or the final revelation with skinheads destroying evidence. 

The question remains as to how well the film makers have read the tensions in their society. That’s going to show in the future, a long way from here. The cycle that runs through La haine, Les Miserables  and this one is not really a progression. 

What is disturbing is that, among the English language comment I’ve read, no one
seems to be making the connection. I don’t know that “It’s only a movie Ingrid” covers this one. 
Dali Benssalah, Athena 

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