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An intimate metaphysical drama depicting the traumas of war and emigration, and how they ricochet within France’s own borders, Sarah Leonor’s The Great Man (Le Grand homme) marks an assured sophomore effort following the director’s well-received debut, A Real Life (which starred the late Guillaume Depardieu). Reminiscent of Claire Denis’s Beau Travail with its stylistic flourishes and hardworking French Legionnaires, as well as of Michael Haneke’s 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance with its splintered portrait of illegal aliens scraping by in the big city, this small but potent feature should see continued fest play following a premiere in Toronto’s Discovery section. Brave distributors will take notice.
Divided into chapters whose titles denote the shifting identities of the film’s three main characters, the story begins in Afghanistan, where Legion soldiers Markov (newcomer Surho Sugaipov) and Hamilton (Jeremie Renier) head out on an improvised mission to hunt for a leopard they saw the night before. When the latter gets shot in an ambush, Markov saves his buddy’s life but gets reprimanded for it. Upon returning to France, he’s given a choice: either sign up for another three years or be dishonorably discharged without obtaining French nationality. (Many Legionnaires are foreigners who enlist in exchange for future citizenship.)
Markov opts to stay in Paris as an undocumented immigrant, tracking down his 10-year-old boy, Khadji (Ramzan Idiev), who he hasn’t seen since debarking overseas. We soon learn that both father and son are Chechnyan refugees forced to flee their homeland during the war, and that their livelihood depended upon Markov (whose real name is Mourad) getting papers for the family.
While such details help fuel a scenario (co-written by Leonor and Emmanuelle Jacob) that raises questions about international conflicts and their effect on national identity — especially in a country like France that can harshly crack down on illegals (including schoolchildren) — the power of The Great Man lies less in the writing than in the filmmaking. With an acute style marked by lengthy tracking shots and crisp natural cinematography from Laurent Desmet (Shall We Kiss?), Leonor manages to convey emotions through purely visual terms: The scene where Markov and Khadji are reunited during a lengthy bateau-mouche ride is particularly effective in this regard, underlining each character’s longing and confusion through the use of shadow and light, but hardly any dialogue.
The well-calibrated performances, including impressive turns from Chechyan amateurs Sugaipov and Idiev, also go a long way in shaping this fragmented tale of men shattered by war and trying to piece their lives back together. Dardennes Bros. regular Renier, who’s grown into a mature talent after debuting in La Promesse when he was only 15, convincingly portrays Hamilton as a twitchy PTSD survivor who learns to stand on solid ground through force of circumstances.
Although the narrative somewhat wanes in its third act as the tension fizzles out, The Great Man is still an arresting work, combining substance and style in innovative ways. Backed by a transfixing score from Martin Wheeler (Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas), it manages to feel both real and otherworldly at the same time, revealing the extraordinary obstacles faced by France’s anonymous underclass as they navigate a society that leaves them little room for maneuver.
Production companies: Les Films Hatari
Cast: Jeremie Renier, Surho Sugaipov, Ramzan Idiev
Director: Sarah Leonor
Screenwriters: Emmanuelle Jacob, Sarah Leonor
Producer: Michel Klein
Director of photography: Laurent Desmet
Production designer: Laurent Baude
Costume designer: Pierre-Yves Gayraud
Editors: Francois Quiquere
Composer: Martin Wheeler
International sales: Bac Films
No rating, 94 minutes
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