Monday, October 3, 2011

Cold Burn

Welcome (Lioret, 2009)
There's something significant about the synopsis on the DVD jacket from Netflix for this film:
When authorities forbid young Kurdish refugee Bilal (Firat Ayverdi) from crossing the English Channel to reunite with this girlfriend, the 17-year old resolves to swim to his love - and finds an unlikely ally in the form of swim instructor Simon (Vincent Lindon). Facing an inevitable divorce from his wife (Audrey Dana), the middle-aged teahcer takes the resolute youth under his wing in this stirring, beautifully acted French film.

After watching this, I can hear my graduate adviser's voice in the back of my head: "What makes this movie French, anyway?" The question maybe a poor one, but its answers are illuminating. It's a poor question because it shouldn't really matter if this film is French or not. Indeed, in many ways, it's more than that. Take a look at the the nationalities and ethnicities involved in this production: a French film with and Kurdish protagonist headed for England. Nothing like this would ever be made by an American mainstream production company. In fact, I think it would be difficult for an independent filmmaker to do. This movie is an example of a growing new trend: transnational cinema. And Welcome wears is polycentric outlook and composition on its sleeve. The polyphony of languages alone used in the film is dizzying. Its very existence is already an socially and politically engaged statement: "We are not only French, or Kurds, or Europeans; firstly, we are all people. Humans, together."

And this movie is a slow, burning indictment of the horrible things we do to each other in the name of social order and economic stability. The synopsis above is vague about just who those forbidding "authorities" are, and the movie is pretty cagey about it, too. But the clues are present, dropped casually here and there: five seconds of a Nicolas Sarkozy press conference, the understated aggressiveness as of the Calais police barge into Simon's apartment, the purely-business attitude of a lead detective investigating Simon's involvement with those in "situation irrégulière." (No one can match the French in their use of euphemism; the term means "illegal immigrant," but literally translates into "those of unusual situation, those who are unregulated," and hence, unchecked, outlaws, dangerous.)

But this kind of understatement is precisely what makes this movie French. It takes part in a long line of films à thèse whose central focus is neither narrative twists nor fancy camerawork nor spectacular special effects, but using characters as manner of sociopolitical critique. Welcome is chock full of engaging people. There's self-assured Bilal, once a soccer star in his native land, now a desperate outsider with only a whiff of a plan. Marion, Simon's ex-wife, is tender, engaged, uncertain and defiant at turns. She wants to do what's right by the hundreds of immigrants flooding Calais, but she wants what's best for Simon, which means staying out of her humanitarian work. Simon is existentially lost, hunting desperately to... do what? He's never entirely sure. Win his ex-wife back? Give his life meaning through charity? Regain a sense of masculine bravado by defying the law? Just do the right thing? Their stories, as they weave together and apart, are filmed simply, in the most unassuming manner. Save for a few travelling shots and deliberate point-of-view takes, the camera is stable, at eye level, the narrator as invisible as possible. It reminds me of something Chabrol said about his 1984 Une affaire de femmes : "C'étaient des gens simples. Il fallait les filmer simplement." (These were simple people; they needed to be filmed simply.)

Welcome does take a while to get its feet under itself. It's twenty minutes into before we even see Simon, who eventually becomes the true protagonist, and it's a solid fifty minutes before I felt properly engrossed. But Lioret's work rewards patience, and attentiveness. Taking a card from Pierre Melville's deck, scenes often jump right to the heart of the important part; there is no exposition;  characters don't catch each other on what just happened. The film takes for granted that you were watching two minutes ago. I love this about French films, a quality that is so often missing in American ones.

Coupled with a clear, but never directly stated, agenda to indict the French crack down in illegal immigrants (including detention centers, police raid, tear-gassing French citizens and illegal search and seizure), this intelligence is what gives Welcome its cold burn: that slow, creeping, ironic sense of heat you get from swimming in cool water too long, from the Channel winds nipping at your exposed skin. It becomes sharp and hot, like the indignant rage you feel when a young man nearly accomplishes the nearly impossible, swimming alone across the Channel, only to drown 800 meters from shore, chased down by the coast guard.

IMDB | Movie Website | Interview with the director

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