Bienvenue à Calais

March 31, 2009By Paris UpdateFilm

The rightwing tabloid press in Britain rarely takes an interest in French cinema, but nothing raises their hackles quite like a sympathetic portrayal of an immigrant trying to enter Britain illegally from France. The ironically titled Welcome, a new film directed by Philippe Lioret, has already attracted attention in the British press and no doubt will provide material for more editorial rants when it is released in the English-speaking world.

In fact, the movie has provoked outrage in France also, as Lioret made a remark recently comparing the treatment of refugees in France to that of the Jews during World War II, leading to a vigorous denunciation of him by the French immigration minister, Eric Besson. Lioret says that he started this particular project as a filmmaker and ended it as a citizen in revolt, because of the draconian French law that prohibits French citizens from housing or helping foreigners en situation irrégulière (a deliberately vague term, meaning something like “without permanent status”).

Vincent Lindon plays Simon, a Calais-based swimming coach and former champion swimmer who, while going through a divorce from his wife Marion (Audrey Dana), takes a young Iraqi Kurdish refugee, Bilal (Firat Ayverdi), under his wing and gives the boy swimming lessons to help in in his bid to swim the Channel and join his girlfriend in England.

The story is simple but never simplistic, and, with the exception of the underwritten part of Marion, the main characters avoid stereotypes. The evolving relationship between Simon and Bilal is touching, and the performances of both actors are excellent.

Lindon certainly deserves to be nominated for best-acting awards (if the judges have not already forgotten by the time the next round of prizes crop up). He is as convincing as he is affecting in his role as an ordinary man who becomes sensitized to the harsh reality of immigrants trying to make a better life for themselves in the face of hostility from the police, the judicial system and even the residents of Calais (the title of the film comes from the English word written on the doormat of one of Simon’s most hostile neighbors).

From the very first scene, the film is characterized by a crepuscular, transitory gloom, strengthened by its setting in Calais, with scenes of ferries passing each other in the harbor.

Even though it is still relatively early in the year, I believe that Welcome will qualify as one of the top films of 2009.

Those who lack confidence in understanding French but would like to see the film before its subtitled version comes out will be glad to hear that much of the dialogue between the two central characters is in English.


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