I'm Not Dead: Berlin Review
Mehdi Dehbi and Maria de Medeiros star in writer-director Mehdi Ben Attia's sophomore feature.
BERLIN -- Best described as Trading Places meets Birth meets the Boulevard Saint-Germain, writer-director Mehdi Ben Attia’s I’m Not Dead (Je ne suis pas mort) is a muddled, art house head-scratcher whose talented cast can never overcome a story that fails to carry its social-psychological themes anywhere believable. Too obscure to find much traction outside the festival circuit, this Berlinale Forum entry, which won top honors at the Angers Premiers Plans fest, should receive a small local release and some overseas play in French film weeks.
A hardworking Algerian student at the illustrious Ecole Normale Superieure, the young and handsome Yacine (Mehdi Dehbi) hopes to make it as a member of France’s administrative elite. When he's not admiring the lectures of his esteemed philosophy professor, Richard (Emmanuel Salinger), Yacine holds down a day job as a part-time messenger, using his earnings to pay the rent for a flat he shares with his pot-puffing brother, Jamel (Driss Ramdi).
When a delivery soon brings Yacine into the clutches of his favorite teacher, it seems at first that Ben Attia’s scenario is headed toward the kind of conflict that would pit the underprivileged immigrant against the upper-crust intellectual, with Richard’s wife, Eleonore (Maria de Medeiros), perhaps serving as the booty (pun intended). Or otherwise, the story feels like it could tread into Teorema territory, with Yacine sleeping with everyone until the noble household crumbles into chaos.
Instead, the film takes one wild and perplexing turn after another when Richard abruptly dies of a brain aneurysm, and then his soul is somehow transported into Yacine’s body -- a phenomenon that’s unconvincingly explained by a couple of bloody noses and too many coupes of champagne. Forced to resurrect himself as an Arab outsider with little money or contacts, Richard gets a glimpse of what life is like on the wrong side of the Seine, and then tries to penetrate into the very world (and woman) he once belonged to.
Unfortunately, Ben Attia (The String) never manages to exploit such a scenario for its full social or dramatic impact -- or, why not, for laughs -- and the plot is too vague and strange to provide anything beyond the thinnest layer of suspense. Richard and Eleonore are presented as little more than poorly sketched Parisian stereotypes, and it’s hard to fathom why the attractive and intelligent Yacine would be so drawn to them. Once the switcheroo happens, it’s even harder to pinpoint what exactly Richard/Yacine is hoping to accomplish, and as their two personalities start to merge together, the movie loses any hope of making its message clear.
Despite the confusion, the filmmaker manages to elicit decent performances from some of the cast, and Dehbi (The Other Son) is especially convincing as a kid from the banlieue who dreams of infiltrating high society, only to find himself infiltrated by one of its more respected members. Salinger (La Sentinelle) is killed off before his character can become interesting, while de Medeiros plays a weepy actress whose heavy eye makeup compensates for her lack of depth.
Production companies: Mercredi Films, Motek Films
Cast: Mehdi Dehbi, Maria de Medeiros, Emmanuel Salinger, Driss Ramdi
Director-screenwriter: Mehdi Ben Attia
Producers: Florence Laneurie, Orly Dahan
Director of photography: Gregoire de Calignon
Production designer: Gilles Graziano
Music: Karol Beffa
Costume designer: Marlene Gerard
Editor: Emmanuelle Castro
Sales Agent: Mercredi Films
No rating, 99 minutes