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French cinema is often accused of being both blindingly white and blind to the problems plaguing France, preferring the sexed-up, cigarette-scented, wine-soaked woes of Parisian (read: Caucasian) bobos to the struggles of the country’s black, Arab and Asian minorities. But Philippe Faucon has been casting a keen eye along the margins of the country for years — recently in 2016’s Fatima, about an Algerian cleaning lady and her French-raised daughters, and again in his sensitive, if less affecting new film, Amin.
Faucon’s reputation as a politically engaged stalwart of the Gallic film industry should help secure the movie (premiering in Cannes in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar) further festival slots and some art house play abroad. But it’s likely to be greeted more coolly than Fatima, which snagged France’s top Cesar award.
Amin revolves around the titular protagonist, a Senegalese immigrant (Moustapha Mbengue) living and working construction jobs in a Paris suburb, and the people who populate his world. Those include his wife, Aisha (Mareme N’Diaye), and three kids back in Senegal, whom he visits a few times a year bearing money and gifts; his Moroccan co-worker Abdelaziz (Noureddine Benallouche), whose daughters are in France but whose heart remains in his homeland; and Gabrielle (Emmanuelle Devos), a chic, middle-aged white nurse whose house Amin is hired to help renovate.
If Amin’s affair with Gabrielle — who shares custody of a preteen daughter (Fantine Harduin, of Michael Haneke’s Happy End) with her obnoxious ex (Samuel Churin) — is the most dramatic development, Faucon wisely resists turning up the heat. There’s little panting or petting in Amin (especially by French standards); the fragile bond these two forge is based less on passion than relief from profound loneliness. The filmmaker also avoids framing their relationship as some sort of impossible love thwarted by unbreakable barriers of race and class; racism, classism and xenophobia certainly exist in the France of Amin, but they are, quite persuasively, of the casual, everyday variety rather than shouted from the rooftop.
The director’s unemphatic approach to the material is admirable and, I suppose, fitting for a film whose stolid protagonist seems numbed by years of dislocation and distance from loved ones. It also makes for a drama that sometimes flirts with flatness, and occasionally tiptoes toward tedium. With minimal camera movement and lots of shot/reverse-shot exchanges, Faucon unspools his narrative, switching between France and Senegal, Amin’s story and those of fellow immigrant workers like Sabri (Jalal Quarriwa) — who, in one of the loveliest scenes, picks up a French-Algerian prostitute out of nostalgia for his birth country. Amin is a careful, modest, deliberate film, but, unlike Fatima, its restraint has a distancing effect.
The earlier movie, though possessed of a similar quiet didacticism, was filled with delicate detail and poignant insight into the various ways immigrants and their children try to make France their own. Most crucially, Fatima centered on three dynamic, fleshed-out characters, whereas the people in Amin are more thinly sketched. Gabrielle, especially, remains a bit of a cipher, despite the fact that she’s played by one of France’s most vivid and fearless actresses; she’s clearly meant to be a gentle, curious soul, but Faucon (who co-wrote the screenplay with Yasmina Nini-Faucon and Mustapha Kharmoudi) deprives her of dimension by never questioning her desire for Amin — and the postcolonial/white guilt or impulse to exotify “the other” that may be unconsciously buried within it.
Perhaps the filmmaker was wary of letting a white character dominate his story, though his tendency to settle for portraying rather than probing extends to the characters of color, too. As played by Mbengue, Amin has two registers: stiff and stoic when in France, more warmly animated back in Senegal. That socioeconomic and cultural alienation, as well as sheer exhaustion from manual labor, would so dramatically drain this man of vibrancy feels more like an idea the filmmaker wants to get across than an authentic reflection of human complexity.
The most intriguing figure is Aisha, who longs for her family to be reunited — and starts to suspect infidelity when Amin’s visits to Senegal grow less frequent — but is far from a passive domestic presence. In one scene, she lashes out at Amin’s brother when he tries to monitor her comings and goings while her husband’s away. Her scorching frustration may make you wonder if an entire movie focused on Aisha would have been more compelling.
Faucon’s compassion for his subjects and their sacrifices is unquestionable, as is the integrity in his reluctance to milk their problems for cheap emotional effect. But what felt like a graceful simplicity in Fatima too often feels like oversimplification in Amin. It’s good that this measured, methodical, deeply empathetic filmmaker gives voice to those who form France’s sizable and diverse underclass; it might also be interesting, next time, to let them roar.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Production company: Istiqlal Films
Director: Philippe Faucon
Writers: Philippe Faucon, Yasmina Nini-Faucon, Moustapha Kharmoudi (based on an original idea of Yasmina Nini-Faucon)
Cast: Moustapha Mbengue, Emmanuelle Devos, Mareme N’Diaye, Noureddine Benallouche, Moustapha Naham, Jalal Quarriwa, Fantine Harduin, Samuel Churin
Cinematographer: Laurent Fenart
Editor: Sophie Mandonnet
Set designer: Manuel Swieton
Costume designer: Charlotte David
International Sales: Pyramide International
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