Gare du Nord: Film Review

Gare Du Nord - H - 2013
Paris' famous railway station gets a thorough going-over in this captivating yet uneven blend of fiction and documentary.

"Zero Dark Thirty" actor Reda Kateb stars along with actress-director Nicole Garcia (“Mon oncle d’Amerique”) in this docu-fiction set inside Europe’s largest train station.

An intriguing melange of fact and fiction yields mixed-to-positive results in Gare du Nord, filmmaker Claire Simon’s ode to the sprawling multicultural population of Europe’s largest, and busiest, train station.

Focusing on a handful of characters who spend their days and nights among the tunnels, platforms, cafés and boutiques of the vast terminal located in the heart of northern Paris, the film starts off promisingly as an unlikely love story between two strangers, but ultimately grows too dramatically diffuse to captivate for its two-hour running time. Still, it paints an effective portrait of the changing social and ethnic face of modern-day France, and could find traction on the fest circuit following a competition bow in Locarno, with possibilities for niche art house theatrical abroad.

“Gare du Nord: Global Village Square” is the title of a PhD being written by the Algerian-born Ismael (Reda Kateb), who, when he’s not researching his thesis by chatting with various characters he comes across, spends his days conducting surveys for the Paris Transit Authority. It’s during one of these interviews that he meets the older, elegant Mathilde (Nicole Garcia), a history professor undergoing cancer treatment, and clearly having a tough time of it.

A courtship between the two quickly ensues, with Ismael showing Mathilde the ins and outs of his sprawling workplace, introducing her to members of the immigrant population who service its many businesses and facilities from the wee hours of the morning until late at night. These early scenes manage to both capture the vast kaleidoscope of life within the station, and to offer up a playful romance between a young, enthusiastic student and a melancholic teacher, giving the latter -- and the viewer, for that matter -- a newfound way of seeing such a time-worn location.

But for rather vague reasons, Ismael breaks off the liaison, leaving his muse to wander the massive venue in the hopes of rejoining him. It’s at this point that the script (by Simon along with Shirel Amitay and Olivier Lorelle) starts to do much wandering of its own, introducing new characters -- including a forlorn real estate agent (Monia Chokri) and a TV comic (Francois Damiens) looking for his runaway daughter -- and delving into various intrigues, dreams and hints of urban mysticism that are altogether less interesting than the real people and frenzied daily grind of the gare itself.

Known in France for such documentaries as the schoolyard portrait, Recreations, and the small business saga, Coute que Coute, Simon has a knack for revealing the complex human relationships within a singular, shared space, and Gare du Nord works best when it shows characters of far different ethnic origins rubbing shoulders and making ends meet, despite a constant sense of friction that sometimes spills over into violence.

The film's docu-style sequences, many of them featuring non-actors, are rich in texture and informative for viewers wondering what Paris looks like outside the five-kilometer radius of the Louvre, the Seine and the Eiffel Tower. Yet as the narrative slowly switches gears to a more fictional mode, it loses its sense of originality, bringing in familiar French actors for quick cameos and turning the station’s regular inhabitants into mere background players. (A scene involving Romani girls is particularly strange in this regard; another of a man attacking a lingerie boutique is both unexpected and slightly ridiculous, like it belongs in a John Waters movie.)

Despite its fictional hazards, the performances from vet Garcia and the alluring Kateb (who played the controversial torture victim in Kathryn Bigelow’s movie) remain captivating throughout, with the latter portraying a character that deserves more screen time than he gets. Damiens (Suzanne) and Chokri (Laurence Anyways) are also fine in roles that dominate the story’s shakier second half.

Shot entirely on location, with Simon, producer Richard Copans and gaffer Laurent Bourgeat all providing camera work, the film utilizes every nook and cranny of the place, inserting its cast during the busy morning rush or quiet closing hours without losing the sense of hectic anonymity such stations have.

Production companies: Les Films d’Ici, Productions Thalie

Cast: Nicole Garcia, Reda Kateb, Francois Damiens, Monia Chokri

Director: Claire Simon

Screenwriters: Claire Simon, Shirel Amitay, Olivier Lorelle

Producer: Richard Copans

Directors of photography: Claire Simon, Richard Copans, Laurent Bourgeat

Music: Marc Ribot

Editor: Julien Lacheray

Sales Agent: Les Films d’Ici

No rating, 119 minutes