Suburban Trials of Fire
|Adrien Jolivet as Zim, in trouble with the law again.|
In France, the banlieue (suburbs) – less a haven for middle-class families than the equivalent of the American ghetto – seems to have become the subject of a new film genre. The Left Bank intellectuals who used to populate Rohmer-style films set in and around the Luxembourg Garden or in lovely vacation homes in Provence have finally talked each other to death; nowadays we are more likely to be treated to a gritty portrait of those who have been excluded from the refined confines of Saint-German des Prés.
It all started in 1995 with Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (Hate), a film that created a sensation with its portrait of three juvenile delinquents speaking the nearly incomprehensible (even to most French people) slang of suburban youth (one of the funniest scenes in that film showed their encounter with some of those sophisticated Left Bank women, who are intrigued by their roughness). Last year’s L’Esquive was the surprise winner of the César for best picture, and the recent Voisins, Voisines (see Film section) focused on a small, cross-cultural community in a lower-middle-class suburb.
Now we have the charming Zim and Co., directed by Pierre Jolivet, which, like La Haine, follows the adventures of three young men from the banlieue with the obligatory tri-color scheme: white (of Polish descent, with an unpronounceable name that is shortened to “Zim”), black and North African. Zim and Co. has a cheerier vision of life than La Haine, however, and these lovable, ordinary, not-always-very-wise 20-year-olds manage to keep their heads above water and remain
optimistic in spite of the racism they regularly encounter, trouble with the police for one minor infraction after another, screwed-up parents and difficulty finding work. Life, in other words, in their register, treated as a social comedy. For the most part, the film manages to avoid clichés, while keeping us in suspense as Zim goes through one trial of fire after another while desperately trying to find a job to avoid going to jail.
The portrayal of the casual racism that is so common in France seems especially true – no one I know has ever seen the police stop a white person and ask for their papers, but it happens all the time to anyone whose skin is a shade darker than a Saint-Tropez tan. The characters react not with hatred, however, but with a philosophical resignation that still seems more common here than the violence of La Haine.
Note: the main character is played by Adrien Jolivet, son of the director, but this nepotism does nothing to detract from the film, since Jolivet the younger is perfect in the role.
© 2005 Paris Update
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