In the presidential elections just over a month ago, France just escaped a medium-sized catastrophe. But the shockingly low voter turnout – in this country, non-voters are now referred to as the second largest political group – gives no reason to sound the all-clear. The south of France along the Côte d’Azur is considered one of the strongholds of Marine Le Pen and her Rassemblement National (formerly Front National) party, which is certainly the case in cities such as Avignon and Cannes, which benefit from both tourism and their diverse cultural life can lead to friction.
A few days ago, a fellow critic reported an uncomfortable dispute between a waiter in one of the countless restaurants along the Croisette and a group of Asian festival-goers. In the runoff election at the end of April, Emmanuel Macron got just 52.6 percent of the votes in Cannes. If you stroll along the promenade in May, it’s quickly forgotten.
However, French cinema also finds it very difficult to overcome certain resentments. This year, too, its external appearance is strikingly homogeneous, regardless of the quality of the films. Whether the new films by Arnaud Desplechin, Emmanuel Mouret and Michel Hazanavicius or by esteemed female directors such as Claire Denis, Mia Hansen-Løve and Alice Winocour – this year’s cinema is moving in familiar social and very white milieus.
The French filmmaker Léa Mysius therefore reminds the audience in a short discussion about her second feature film “Les Cinq Diables” that France also looks different than certain political forces in the country would like. (The title’s five devils are the name of a chain of peaks in the French Alps.) Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos) lives in a small town on the edge of the mountains with her Senegalese husband Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue) and their daughter Vicky (Sally Dramé). ; she works as a swimming instructor, he as a fireman.
Her daughter has the gift of perceiving smells particularly intensely: she can smell her mother hiding from her (a telling image of motherhood in the film) with her eyes closed. In addition, Vicky has a connection to the past, which in this case is not superpowers, but a mixture of spiritism and family ties. Because the arrival of Jimmy’s sister Julia (Swala Emati), who was in prison for arson, sets in motion a dynamic that lets the ten-year-old fall deeper and deeper into the history of her parents and aunt. Vicky sees the young woman who looks like her and her father as a threat – especially to her parents’ relationship.
It’s great fun to watch how Mysius masterfully combines the everyday reality of her characters and the different tonalities of family drama and fantastic elements and overlays them again and again. The director, who is also responsible for the camera together with Paul Guilhaume (and who also wrote the script), finds naturalistic, exaggerated images in which the supernatural and the dreamlike are never external. Mysius recently wrote the screenplay for the generational portrait “Where the sun rises in Paris” with Céline Sciamma and Jacques Audiard. With her, French cinema is one voice richer.
The social realism of the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, despite all empathy for the oppressed and excluded, always had a very Eurocentric connotation. Even in “The Unknown Girl” from 2016, the African migrant was only a ghostly apparition, the focus is on the bad conscience of the doctor played by Adèle Haenel. Their competition entry “Tori e Lokita” reverses the perspective without changing the mode of constant flight that characterizes all films by the Dardenne brothers.
12-year-old Tori (Pablo Schils) from Cameroon and 16-year-old Lokita (Joely Mbundu) from Benin met while they were fleeing and gave up as siblings when they arrived in Belgium. Because of his age, the boy can stay in the country, now they have to prove that Lokita is his sister so that she also gets the right to stay. They take on small drug deals for a cook to earn some money, but the girl also owes her trafficker.
The Dardennes accompany the two hustlers in their typical semi-documentary style on their swindles and their way to the immigration authorities. In contrast to this, the close-ups of faces and the half-close shots are very calculated, so that one can hardly escape the emotional effect of the play of the two amateur actors.
But even if you have long been immunized against the laws and formalism of Dardenne cinema (23 years ago, the Golden Palm for “Rosetta” caused a small scandal), the wit and adaptability of Pablo Schils’ Tori, the knows how to assert oneself both on the street and in the office, from the very first moment. Unlike their works with stars like Haenel and Marion Cotillard, the best films by the Dardenne brothers always lived off the impartiality of their amateur actors, which they rediscovered over and over again.
This is how “Tori e Lokita” should leave its mark in the current competition, even if the Dardennes do not leave familiar territory. The brothers are likely to find an advocate in jury member Ladj Ly, who won an award in Cannes three years ago with the banlieue action drama “The Furious” and is a critic of homogeneous European cinema. The competition for the Palme d’Or is, however, very manageable this year, as much is clear at the finish line in Cannes. Unfortunately, the problem with the Dardenne brothers is that they can very easily be taken as a fig leaf for socially committed cinema.