Friday, March 11, 2016

We are all Parisians

Parisienne (2015) - Arbid
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There is no shortage of a-young-girl-coming-of-age films in French cinema. Danielle Arbid's Parisienne charts this common, seemingly familiar territory. But it's from a perspective of a foreigner, a Lebanese girl to be precise, in the 90s. Even though the film is set in the pre-9/11 world, it resonates strongly today, with France (and much of Europe in general) going through a social upheaval the scale not seen since 1968, because of massive influx of people from the Middle East region.

The strength of Parisienne comes from stellar performance by a newcomer, Manal Issa, playing Lina: a young, defiant girl with a dubious visa status attending university in Paris. Its semi-autobiographical, beautifully nuanced script (co-written by Julie Peyr of another semi-biographical, period film, Arnaud Desplechin's My Golden Days- also playing as part of this year's Rendez-vous with French Cinema) also helps making the film memorable.

The film starts with Lina on the eve of her life as a university student in Paris, fleeing sexual advances from her uncle (played by terrific stage and film actor Waleed Zuaiter) from Paris suburb. Once in Paris, penniless and homeless, Lina somehow manages to force herself into the cramped apartment of her classmates. She even scores a telemarketing job through one of her roommates. Just like any good foreign student, she is enrolled to study economics. But she soon has a change of heart after taking an art history and literature classes. The passionate professors Mm. Gagnebin and M. Lemernier (veteran actors Dominique Blanc and Alain Libolt), leave a big impression on our young protagonist in shaping her artistic tendencies. She also takes up an older lover Jean-Marc (Paul Hamy) who showers her with affection and gifts.

But things start falling apart when Lina inadvertently sabotages her roommate's job by being good at what she does while battling the unsympathetic immigration system. Tempers fly and the typical, jingoistic rhetoric- 'filthy immigrants are only here for handouts' is invoked. Lina ends up in a women's homeless shelter (she calls it a palace). Jean-Marc, being a married man, dumps her when things get too touchy. Then she hears her father in Lebanon is in his deathbed.

Lina then hooks up with a cafe waiter Julien (Damien Chapelle), whom she met when she first got to Paris. A low level drug dealer and a musician in his spare time, Julien introduces her to the other side of Paris - more gritty and working class, if you will. She also befriends with the royalists who frequently hang out with skinheads. Ironically, it's them who provide her with lodging. With the help of Mm. Gagnebin's lawyer friend, she tries fend off the impending deportation.

Lina is not a noble savage character as one typically gets portrayed in western films. She steals, and cheats to survive. Just like regular teenagers, she lies to make a cool impression on people, that she is an war orphan. One can easily dub Parisienne as 'An Education of Lina Kawal'. Concentrating on Lina's flight exclusively for two hour running time, the film is an intimate portrait of immigrant experience that is both very personal and universal. Arbid treats the 90s backdrop very casually (except for the appearance of Frank Black on stage - stock footage from the 90s I'm assuming, as Julien and Lina go to his concert) as if the setting and time are just numbers because we all know that history keeps repeating itself.

Lina, except for her stunning beauty, is fairly ordinary girl, adapting and blooming in complicated surroundings- be it politics, art, music, men and sex, taking all in. Issa portrays our complicated heroine with great intensity and thoughtfulness. Her presence is hard to ignore and you can't take your eyes off of her when she's on screen. All the supporting characters are stellar also. Vincent Lacoste (Eden, Diary of Chambermaid) plays a volatile socialist student, Rafael, who happens to be a son of the liberal lawyer who's helping Lina's case. He is a reminiscent of young Jean-Pierre Léaud- quick witted, wise and nonchalant. They become a couple. Elina Löwensohn (Nadja, Sombre) shows up as another foreigner in trouble with immigration at the court hearing and offers quietly heartbreaking backstory, again, illustrating what it means to be free and what's at stake in these cases.

The immigrant experience in France is a hot subject for a film as the country has been weathering some of the worst terrorist attacks in recent memory and consequently had a close call politically with the extreme right wing National Front almost taking over the country in the last election. Jingoism and bigotry are rising. Films like Persepolis, Mustang and Parisienne are great reminder of changing face of France, that the immigrant experience is just as French as having a coffee at an outdoor cafe or riding a bicycle in a beret chewing on a baguette. The film's original title, Afraid of Nothing (Peur de rien) is an apt one and perfectly suited for the personal story of Lina. But the Parisians, considering the theme of the film that everyone living in Paris can be and should be called that, I think Parisienne, however generic it sounds, is a better fit.

Parisienne plays part of this year's Rendez-vous With French Cinema series. For tickets and more info, please visit FSLC website.