Director of Photography:
Running time: 119 minutes
Original title: L‘esquive
Taking a place among the most moving and insightful films about the lower-income suburbs, known as la banlieue, that surround the French capital, together with Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 film la Haine and Laurent Cantet’s Entre les murs from 2008, this is a remarkable film shot on a very small budget with few if any professional actors.
Thematically close to Games of Love and Chance, the three-act play by Marivaux that is explicitly cited at many turns in the film, the story is set among a group of teenagers who come face to face with very real emotions as friendships are tested and they deal with the problems that separate them from the innocence of childhood.
Abdelkrim (“Krimo”) is a quiet boy around 15 years old. His father is in prison, and he lives alone in a small apartment with his mother. In one of the first scenes of the film, his girlfriend Magali breaks up with him because she says he isn’t paying enough attention to her. Not one with words, Krimo stays mute in the face of this rejection, and focuses on one of his longtime friends instead: Lydia, who has the starring role in a school production of Marivaux’s play.
Lydia, played by Sara Forestier, is a girl who has the gift for the gab, and the talented cast, without whom this project would have been impossible, engage in a number of lengthy verbal exchanges that will test the skills of even the most fluent of French speakers. With a rapid-fire delivery of combinations of swear words and verlan (the “inverted” speech of the suburbs) that is as colourful and creative as it is offensive to whomever it is directed at, the aggressive interactions keep our exchange by virtue of the passion of the actors and actresses alone.
Lydia is one who often engages in this kind of behaviour, and an early scene between her and her good friend Frida, who feels threatened by Krimo’s presence at an outdoor but private rehearsal of the play, is the first of many similar scenes that nonetheless never lose their tension. We keep wondering whether acting out with words will lead to more violent reactions.
Although not single takes, the takes in these scenes are sometimes shot in a way that the camera has to constantly pan between two faces, each taking up the whole screen in close-up, which emphasises the speakers’ importance and fully directs our attention towards the particular speaker instead of the (temporarily) silent party.
The audience cannot escape these shouting matches, and although we get a false sense of security sometimes that things won’t get worse than words, the threat of violence and the assumption of authority that goes along with it sometimes pops up to ensure some stomach-churning moments — including one that involves the police patrolling the low-income suburbs constantly on the lookout for trouble they assume to be ubiquitous. While la Haine treated the threat of the police much more aggressively, Games of Love and Chance uses it with great success to underline the potential for one’s life to suddenly be turned upside down, simply because of living in one of these neighbourhoods.
Although there is little development in Krimo’s character (as opposed to the crises faced by Lydia and Frida — of whom the latter arguably has the hardest job confronting not only a threat on her life, but also theft, as well as some personal issues she has to resolve), we are glued to him perhaps because he says so little yet is not inscrutable. As Krimo, Osman Elkharraz delivers a wonderful performance that, like his interpretation of the character of Arlequin, which he plays when he decides to get closer to Lydia, says too little to be fully engaging, and never really seems to enjoy his life or the emotions that go along with being alive.
The film is edited together so there is no padding: Everything that happens is necessary and we get no dead space in between the important points.
A work of immense interest for anyone who wishes to see the Parisian suburbs as a vibrant hub of emotions rather than simply la banlieue, Games of Love and Chance benefits from the talented cast, including theatre actress Carole Franck as the teacher who tries her best to get Krimo to crawl out of his shell, express his emotions and enjoy the feeling of being in love. The language of the characters is one of the most interesting and impressive aspects of the production, as it becomes a part of the very fabric of the film. But while it admirably refuses to develop in the same way a film with a bigger budget would, it doesn’t thoroughly take advantage of some themes it raises through its intertextual use of Marivaux’s play either.
*The original title, l’Esquive, refers to a line in the play and translates as the action of shying away from something, or dodging it, instead of submitting to it. The connection with the material should be obvious.