Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 13 December 2005
Source 35mm print
Of all France’s “cinéma beur” — films by and/or about France’s immigrant population of North African and Arab descent, often condemned to a life of poverty, discrimination, and unemployment in satellite-towns — it’s probably only Matthieu Kassowitz’s La Haine, from all of ten years ago, that has made an international impact. Certainly, Kassowitz’s film has been frequently invoked to offer “explanation” of the recent weeks of rioting in France, principally for the way La Haine’s narrative of police harassment generating a riot in response parallels these recent events. But in Abdellatif Kechiche’s L’Esquive we have an even better film — not only more recent but subtler, more intelligent, more complex — that offers an insight into the experience of teenagers living in an immigrant satellite-town. The film is especially impressive in the way Kechiche refuses the audience the easy catharsis of a climactic violence. Kechiche sees that in the end this is a false (and even, to an audience, a comforting) resolution to the issues at hand. L’Esquive is more tough-minded and more reflective of the complex realities on the ground.
Shot on DV transferred to 35mm, the film first promises a rough and dirty realist style. In the opening sequence the extreme close-ups and the rapid cutting have a nervy effect, which along with the staccato bursts of youth gang slang are in fine accord with the situation on-screen as a group of teen boys debate an obscure insult and promise a violent retaliation. But Kechiche doesn’t develop this line of the narrative — instead, the scene is one of simply setting the tone — and to some surprise he instead follows one of the boys on the sidelines here, the quiet, repressed Krimo. We now follow Krimo as he breaks up with his on-and-off girlfriend Magali and then by chance meets up with the beautiful blonde Lydia, an old pal since they were young kids, as she picks up a costume from (and attempts to fleece) an Asian dressmaker.
The costume is for a performance of the classic 1730 Marivaux play Le jeu de l’amour et du hasard/The Game of Love and Chance, and she invites Krimo to watch her rehearse in an open space on the housing estate. This scene is central to the film’s concerns: in narrative terms, Krimo is suddenly smitten by Lydia and the twists and turns of the film’s story mark Krimo’s attempts to win her and Lydia’s holding back (this is the significance of the film’s title — “esquive” is sporting term in fencing or boxing, meaning to hold back and dodge); thematically, the play raises the issue of the empowering and also the limiting role of language in these kids’ lives.
In Marivaux’s play masters and servants exchange roles to put true love to the test; its essentially conservative point is that these characters are determined by their class. Even in disguise and with the true identity of each pair unknown to one another, the two sets of lovers will match up in accordance with their class. This is also the message the middle-class French teacher gives to her class that’s studying and performing the text: class and language are intertwined, and the characters cannot escape what their language determines.
Still, in Kechiche’s eyes at the same time there’s an added, empowering dimension to these kids’ playacting in the almost foreign language of classical eighteenth-century French. Lydia simply shines in an acting role whose value to her extends outside of the play performance itself, and her sidekick, the forceful, gutsy, almost permanently angry Frida, draws a similar strength. The French teacher also recognises this aspect when she urges the unresponsive Krimo to use the language of the play to take himself out of everyday reality.
Krimo has bribed his friend Rachid to drop out of the play and leave him the role of Arlequin and the opportunity to pursue Lydia, but the plan goes awry. In Krimo’s case, there’s no empowerment: his power to transform himself is restricted by the limitations set on him by his class, his limited education, and his poor language skills — he simply cannot perform, exposing himself to the ridicule of his classmates.
What Marivaux can do for these kids is limited, and this is reinforced by the way their involvement in the play doesn’t protect them from the low-level violence of their environment. The proud, strongly self-confident Frida is very quickly reduced to timorous fear by Krimo’s older friend (or “homey” as the subtitles put it) Fathi. In a modernisation of the machinations of classical French theatre, the violent Fathi has intervened to ensure (or, rather, demand) that Lydia gives an answer to Krimo’s courtship. Ultimately this plays out as comedy as they are all driven off the estate in a stolen car, which, parked on the side of the road, is the venue for Krimo and Lydia to talk through their little problem.
At which point, urban reality and a far greater violence than we have seen so far (limited to a little manhandling and cellphone-theft) intervene in the form of the cops. These cops, male and female alike, are brutal, aggressive, and excessively, disproportionately violent toward these youths. Marivaux doesn’t protect them, a point Kechiche rather overplays when Frida’s crumpled copy of the play is discovered inside her jacket and dumped onto the roof of the car like some concealed weapon.
It’s important for Kechiche to register this violent incursion of everyday reality into the world of the play (both the performance of the text itself and the parallel play-like scenario Fathi draws up) but he immediately and impressively changes tone with a sudden cut to the film’s coda, the school performance. Here, it’s a utopian environment, where children, parents, friends, and teachers gather together in harmony. The initial performance by very young children offers a sense of hope and possibility, the teenagers’ performance of Marivaux (with Rachid back in the role Krimo displaced him from) is a success, and all the main characters, including the violent Fathi and Magali with a new boyfriend, mingle together.
With one exception: Krimo. While the performance is in full swing, a hand-held camera follows him as he watches from the outside, physically excluded from what is taking place within. And this exclusion and the way Krimo has and will always lose out is reinforced in the film’s very last shot: Lydia tries calling Krimo down from his apartment, he refuses to respond, and so she walks off, leaving us — and, more significantly, Krimo — behind.