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The title A Season in France (Une saison en France) evokes wistful strolls along the Seine or a trip through wine country, but anyone familiar with the work of Chadian auteur Mahamat-Selah Haroun (A Screaming Man) should know this is not what’s in store.
A dark yet compassionate look at illegal immigrants struggling in the lower depths of Paris, the film is far from a picture-postcard journey and something closer to a season in hell — especially for a grieving father whose fate depends on the mercy of the authorities. Yet as tough as it is, France is also warm and subtly heartbreaking, offering a moving vision of life for those stuck in legal and emotional limbo. Premiering as a Special Presentation in Toronto, it should see solid festival play and some art-house action overseas, especially with such an urgent subject matter as this.
Cannes Jury Prize winner Haroun was born in Chad but has lived in France for over thirty years, although this is the first time he’s set a movie in his adopted homeland. Yet the point of view he takes is that of a fellow African — a schoolteacher named Abbas (Eriq Ebouaney) who arrived from his war-torn city of Bangui (in the Central African Republic) over a year ago and now works a menial job selling vegetables while his two young children (Aalayna Lys, Ibrahim Burama Darboe) are enrolled in school.
Like many other “sans papiers,” as they’re called, Abbas hopes to receive political asylum from the French courts while trying to avoid any sort of confrontation with the police, who have the right to arrest and deport him. His brother, the philosophy professor Etienne (Bibi Tanga), is in the same situation, working as a security guard while living in a ramshackle shelter he built for himself beneath a highway overpass. These are educated and literary men that are treated like second-class citizens — or rather non-citizens who will never have the same rights as regular Frenchmen.
The film starts with a nightmare where Abbas sees a vision of his wife, Madeleine, who perished while they were making their way over from Africa. The man is still traumatized by the loss, even if he’s managed to strike up a romance with the warmhearted and concerned florist, Carole (Sandrine Bonnaire). But it’s not an easy one, and in both Abbas’ and Etienne’s troubled relationships with local women, Haroun explores questions of impotency and abandon, revealing how difficult it is for for them to have normal love lives when their legal statuses are still up in the air.
While Etienne’s fate takes a harrowing turn for the worse, Abbas still has Carole and his kids to keep him afloat, and as somber as the film can be there are also moments of respite — especially a birthday party sequence shot in two long takes where we see everyone doing the kind of stuff that normal people do: making jokes, singing, eating cake, popping open champagne, offering gifts and dancing with recklessness.
It almost looks like things will be all right, but Haroun hardly sugarcoats things nor pretends that men like Abbas are going to make it when most of them really don’t. Instead, he leaves us with a sense of mystery, if not exactly of hope, while showing that under the worst circumstances perhaps the best one can do is maintain their dignity.
Intimately crafted and set primarily in the different apartments that the family crashes from one week to the next, France takes place far from the Paris most of us know — we never see the Eiffel Tower, let alone a fancy street — with cinematographer Mathieu Giombini altering between warmly lit interiors and the stark industrial landscapes of the suburbs. A score from Senegalese musician Wasis Diop punctuates the drama at the right moments, while the film’s slow but assured pacing brings us to a conclusion that underlines how Abbas’ story is only one of many.
Production companies: Pili Films, Arte France Cinema
Cast: Eriq Ebouaney, Sandrine Bonnaire, Ibrahim Burama Darboe, Aalayna Lys, Bibi Tanga
Director, screenwriter: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun
Producer: Florence Stern
Director of photography: Mathieu Giombini
Production designer: Eric Barboza
Editor: Jean-Francois Elie
Composer: Wasis Diop
Casting director: Gigi Akoka
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)