'Sous X': Film Review

Courtesy of Pan-Europeenne
An authentic portrait of French thug life that could pack some more punch

Writer, director, actor and ex-convict Jean-Michel Correia makes his feature debut

It's been a decade since riots first broke out in the suburbs north of Paris, bringing issues of unemployment, marginalization and delinquency to the national forefront. Ten years later, and despite a new government, it's clear that things haven't improved much for residents of the banlieue, with many young men still opting for a life of crime.

Such is the context and setting of Sous X, a low-key, almost-documentary-style account of one man's return to the hood after serving an extended jail sentence for armed robbery. Written and directed by real life ex-con Jean-Michel Correia, who also plays the lead role, the film at times recalls the gritty street thrillers of Jacques Audiard, on whose A Prophet Correia served as technical advisor. But it doesn't quite stack up to that movie's grueling leveling of tension, making for an underwhelming though authentic urban portrait that captures a world far from Paris' pristine white monuments.

Fresh out of the slammer and back in the labyrinthine housing projects he grew up in, the mixed-race 30-something Jean-Jacques (Correia) couldn't be happier to be home. Raised by loving white parents after he was given up by his birth mother — the film's title refers to the French legal process of anonymous adoption — the bulky bank robber settles into his old flat, making the rounds of family, neighbors and friends who've never moved out.

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But no sooner has he unpacked his bags then Jean-Jacques jumps back into the game, assisting in the drug-running operation of a childhood pal (Karim Leklou) and reaching out to a fellow jailbird (David Saracino) with major beef in the area. He also gets the hots for a young student (Mariama Gueye) staying in his building, while reconnecting with a bartender (Anissa Allali) looking for a sustained relationship.

Filled with realistic depictions of French gangsta life, as if Correia and his crew were documenting events as they happen — the script, co-written with Gary Pierre-Victor, was inspired by the director's own story — Sous X offers up a raw account of a place where drugs run rampart and dealers rule the roost (cops are only glimpsed once in the movie, and from a very safe distance). The fact that Jean-Jacques hardly considers getting a real job, even if he has a certain talent for drawing, is never questioned by the guys he grew up with, who seem to see no other option. To them, crime is the only answer.

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Despite all the guns, drugs and thugs, the Paris suburbs are not quite the wild west, and Sous X also reveals the community spirit that exists in such neighborhoods, with criminals chipping in cash for a summer block party and dancing along with the local kids. Yet, as much as Correia captures a strong sense of place here, he doesn't build up enough suspense to channel the story's various genre elements, resulting in a third act that cranks up the action (including an AK-47 shooting), but never has the intensity it should.

Still, his portrayal of the generous but troubled Jean-Jacques is a touching one, and although the guy does some pretty bad things, you can't help feeling empathy for him. Unlike the hero in Audiard's A Prophet, driven to commit violence in prison by the other inmates, this is a man who's chosen by himself to go off the straight and narrow path. It's less a question of circumstance than one of resourcefulness, if not resignation. C'est la vie.

Production companies: Pan-Europeenne
Cast: Jean-Michel Correia, Karim Leklou, Pierre Douglas, Lisa Livane, Anissa Alalli, Mariama Gueye
Director: Jean-Michel Correia
Screenwriters: Jean-Michel Correia, Gary Pierre-Victor
Producer: Nathalie Gastaldo Godeau
Director of photography: Muriel Cravatte
Production designer: Thierry Golitin
Costume designer: Laurence Benoit
Editor: Jean-Denis Bure
Casting director: Mohamed Belhamar
Sales: Pan-Europeenne

No rating, 100 minutes

 

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