‘By Accident’ (‘Par accident’): Film Review

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An intriguing premise that hits too many bumps on its drive home.

10/14/2015

Hafsia Herzi and Emilie Dequenne star in writer Camille Fontaine’s feature debut.

Besides its opening hit-and-run sequence, not many things happen By Accident (Par accident) in French screenwriter Camille Fontaine’s wobbly debut feature, which takes an intriguing premise – a sort of cross-cultural Thelma & Louise, where two girls from opposing backgrounds form a bond following a deadly crime – and turns it into a weighty and deliberate social thriller that fails to ignite the way it should.

Starring Hafsia Herzi (The Secret of the Grain) as an Algerian immigrant who finds herself in a fix after running a man over with her car, and Emilie Dequenne (Our Children) as the vulgar southern gal who decides to help her out, only to bring in a whole new slew of problems, this low-key affair kicks off with a few strong ideas but doesn’t know how to work them out in a believable manner. The last act is especially riddled with plot twists and genre cliches, not to mention a lackluster closing car chase, that wind up undermining whatever message the filmmakers were going for. After a small release in France, festivals and a few Francophone territories await.

Amra (Herzi) is a happily married blue-collar worker who lives with her husband, Lyes (Mounir Margoum), and daughter, Blanche (Thelma Deroche Marc), in a trailer home nestled in the hills above Aix-en-Provence. On her way back from the industrial dry cleaners where she labors at the hands of a weirdly menacing boss (Emmanuel Salinger from La Sentinelle), Amra collides with a pedestrian, sending him into a coma and throwing her semi-stable existence into disarray.

Out of nowhere comes Angelique (Dequenne), a part-time nurse and full-time “cagole” (the derogatory French term for trashy women from the south) who claims she witnessed the accident and that Amra didn’t do anything wrong. Bullying her way into the latter’s personal life, Angelique shows the introverted Algerian how to get drunk and have a good time (and also how to drink beer and urinate at the same time – apparently a southern specialty), bringing presents for Blanche while vaguely flirting with Lyes, who’s initially suspicious of the Frenchie but soon takes a liking to her.

The film sets up some interesting contrasts in its early stages, showing how a quiet workaholic like Amra can be drawn to the freewheeling ways of Angelique, who doesn’t have to constantly worry about immigration issues (Lyes is living in France illegally, while Amra is hoping to get a green card.) Meanwhile, Angelique seems to envy the humble family life of her newfound friend, ingratiating herself in ways that prove more and more troublesome, especially when we learn that she falsified her testimony about the accident.

But the set-up ultimately gives way to a slew of quid pro quos whereby Amra convinces herself that Angelique is a Single White Female determined to ruin her life, leading to a finale that shifts from curious character study to eye-rolling suspenser. It’s the kind of move that could work in the hands of a more skilled director, but Fontaine – who penned the script to Coco Before Chanel – doesn’t ratchet up the tension in interesting ways, and the closing action sequence feels predominantly harmless.

Herzi and Dequenne are both talented actors who give themselves full-throttle to their conflicting roles, building an opposites attract-style female bromance that offers up a few memorable scenes (especially one where Angelique drunkenly serenades Amra to composer Christophe’s depressive ballad, “J’ai eu tort”). Yet Dequenne’s character feels especially exaggerated at times, turning Angelique into a cartoonish, smut-talking floozy decked out in mega-sized hoop earrings, skintight rainbow bodysuits and enough eye makeup to restock an entire shelf at Sephora.

Margoum (In the Shadow of Women) is memorable as Amra’s quietly loving husband, and the portrait of their marriage is far from your typically torrid working-class love affair. There are moments between them that provide a glimpse into the kind of studied drama that By Accident could have been, had the filmmakers decided to take a different road than the one that twists, turns and ultimately drives us over the edge.

Production companies: Elzevir Films, France 3 Cinema
Cast: Hafsia Herzi, Emilie Dequenne, Mounir Margoum, Emmanuel Salinger
Director: Camille Fontaine
Screenwriter: Camille Fontaine, in collaboration with Marcia Romano
Producers: Denis Carot, Marie Masmonteil
Director of photography: Elin Kirschfink
Production designer: Mathieu Menut
Costume designer: Eve-Marie Arnault
Editors: Albertine Lastera, Marion Monnier
Composer: Christophe
Casting director: Marion Touitou
Sales agent: Be for Films

No rating, 85 minutes

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