Director: Olivier Nakache & Eric Toledano (2015)
This inter-racial romance among immigrants in Paris breaks hearts and cultural barriers with an abundance of humanity and humour.
Working-class Senegalese trainee chef Samba Cisse (Omar Sy) has lived illegally for ten years in Paris. He is arrested at work and placed in a detainment centre next to the airport.
Highly-strung case-worker Alice (Charlotte Gainsberg) helps him with his court case. They are both passionate and give good anger. She’s warned by the younger, sexier, more cynical Manu (Izia Higelin) not to become involved with her clients.
Released and required to leave France but under no pressure to do so, Samba returns to work in a succession of unskilled, casual, cash in hand jobs in security, construction, window cleaning and so on. They all posses an element of danger.
Samba is accompanied by his effervescent Brazilian friend Wilson (Tahar Rahim) and they make a likeable double-act, helping and protecting one another from criminals and the police.
As the tentative relationship between Samba and Alice develops, they have a beneficial effect on the other’s personalities – but Samba’s all too human needs and weaknesses return to threaten his potential happiness and fragile stability.
The ambitious opening scene is a lengthy shot beginning in a lively, wealthy wedding reception. We follow a fabulous wedding cake as it’s transported off the dance floor through the hotel corridors and into the depths of the kitchen where the camera stops and lingers on the men washing dishes.
It is no coincidence these are the first black faces we see and in one wordless, dynamic shot, the film’s occupations with identity, status and employment are established. The shot has echoes of both the opening of The Great Beauty (2014) and the Copacabana scene form Goodfellas (1990).
There is also a virtuoso and vertiginous shot looking down an office block which was sufficiently well constructed to make me dizzy.
Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography avoids making Paris a chocolate box of delight but is presented as a busy, complex, working city. In this film of contrasts, light and colour are used to differentiate between calm and chaos, wealth and poverty.
The music is sparse but used to terrific effect. We hear a confusion of languages which helps the exploration of identity; how it is defined for us but also how we can choose to define ourselves.
An intelligent script takes great delight in pointing out the absurdities and failings of the bureaucratic immigration system, not least in making the observation people are seeking asylum from places the French middle-class go on holiday.
Alice and Samba are hard-working, charming and flawed. In a cafe they’re filmed in shallow focus to block out the world around them, encouraging us to concentrate on their beautiful faces.
They enjoy each other’s company and we enjoy being with them. They’ll always have Paris.