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Everyone knows that the French love cheese and wine, baguettes and cigarettes. But few people are aware that outside the U.S., the French are the biggest fans of hip-hop music in the world. Turn on any pop radio station in Paris and you’re bound to stumble on a rap song, often with uncensored lyrics. Only in France can you walk into a supermarket and hear Nikki Minaj’s “Anaconda” playing en version originale.
Starting back in 1995 with Mathieu Kassovitz’ La Haine, there have been a number of French films dealing in one way or another with the local hip-hop phenomenon, including a duo of recent indies — Pascal Tessaud’s Brooklyn and Abd Al Malik’s May Allah Bless France! — that reveal how much rap music has become a source of inspiration for kids living in the housing projects (or cités) surrounding Paris and other major cities.
The latest take on the genre is Comment c’est loin (It’s so far), a cleverly made rags-to-rhymes story about two suburban losers trying to cut a hit song before their benefactors pull the plug on them for good. Featuring burgeoning rap stars Orelsan and Gringe — whose concept album (released under the name Cassuers Flowters) was a minor sensation last year — the film plays best when letting its talented MCs strut their stuff, worse when it gets wrapped up in too many comic hijinks. Still, there’s no denying the wry lyrical powers on display here, allowing the film to find a minor audience at home and possible play dates in other French-speaking ‘hoods.
Set over a 24-hour period in the sleepy Normand city of Caen, the story follows Orel (Orelsan, who co-directed along with DP-turned-filmmaker Christophe Offenstein) and his sidekick, Gringe, as they try to muster up enough energy to lay down one track by the time the sun comes up. Yet these two goofballs — one works as a hapless motel night clerk, the other has no gainful employment — find every excuse in the book to do anything but rap, wandering about town in search of fast cash and good times, while drinking and smoking their way into oblivion.
While the comic sequences are skillfully directed and occasionally funny, they can also feel overcooked and drawn out, taking away from what’s truly of interest here: watching the two stars flex their rhyming skills on screen. An opening song called “Stupider than Stupidity” gives us a hint of what they can do, as does an impressive freestyle session that reveals how the duo hooked up with a set of up-and-coming producers (Ablay and Skread), who decided to back the shiftless partnership for way too long. But then you have to wait all the way until their final number — the super sly “Incomplete” — to realize the journey was sort of worth it, though would have been even better had music played a greater role throughout.
Orelsan — who raps in a faux-lazy style and looks perpetually like he just got out of bed — has tons of charisma and the jokester capabilities of early Eminem. He’s been accused of misogyny in the past, especially for a self-released track entitled “Dirty Slut” that had many Frenchies in an uproar. The women in Comment c’est loin are definitely given short shrift, though a running gag involving Gringe’s mystery SMS pen pal (who turns out to be Orelsan) shows how much these two goofballs may be softies at heart, seeking the sort of affection they were never able to get at home.
Both co-directing and serving as cinematographer, Offenstein (Blood Ties) uses plenty of colorful widescreen setups to make the most out such helplessly dull surroundings. Caen is certainly a far cry from Compton, but, through the filmmakers’ eyes, it becomes a place where hip-hop lives.
Production companies: Nolita Cinema, Les Canards Sauvages, Cinefrance, Orange Studio, Wagram, No Fear Prod
Cast: Orelsan, Gringe, Seydou Doucore, Claude Urbiztondo Llarch
Directors: Orelsan, Christophe Offenstein
Screenwriters: Stephanie Murat, Christophe Offenstein, Orelsan
Producers: Olivier Poubelle, Maxime Delauney, Romain Rousseau
Director of photography: Christophe Offenstein
Production designer: Frederique Doublet
Costume designer: Alica Cambournac
Editor: Jeanne Kef
Composer: Skread, in collaboration with Orelsan and Alexis Rault
Casting director: Tatiana Vialle
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