Hold Back: Cannes Review

Hold Back Rengaine Director's Fortnight Cannes Film Still - H 2012

Hold Back Rengaine Director's Fortnight Cannes Film Still - H 2012

Belated feature debut from bestselling French novelist belies its title by bursting with bravado and brio.

Rachid Djaïdani's Parisian comedy-drama features a twist on the well-known "Romeo and Juliet" and "West Side Story" tales.

Rachid Djaïdani apparently spent nine years filming Hold Back, but it's no insult to this sparkily fresh Paris comedy-drama to say it looks like it was thrown together in less than a week. Brisk and brash, the latest twist on well-worn Romeo and Juliet/West Side Story themes has an irresistibly youthful zest that easily transcends and justifies the rough edges of its unvarnished approach. Unveiled in the edgy Directors' Fortnight sidebar at Cannes, it's a deceptively smart take on hot-button racial issues that has, with suitable handling, all the makings of a breakout word-of-mouth hit at home. Abroad, there'll be no shortage of festival interest for a likeably provocative little movie whose lo-fi origins and underground vibe make it a prime candidate for adventurously new release and viewing methods.

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In France, 38-year-old Djaïdani has up until now been best known as a novelist (1999's cult, banlieue-themed bestseller Boumkoeur) and actor -- mainly on the small screen, and in the theater where he was a member of veteran radical Peter Brook's international touring company for five years. A polymath renaissance-man, he's a sometime champion boxer who got his first showbiz break as production-assistant on Matthieu Kassovitz's generation-defining directorial debut La Haine (1995).

Himself of Algerian and Sudanese descent, Djaïdani's own first feature -- he previously made the 55-minute documentary Sur Ma Ligne (2006) -- deals with a romance which crosses racial boundaries. In the opening scene, we observe struggling actor Dorcy (Stéphane Soo Mongo) and his girlfriend of one year, Sabrina (Sabrina Hamida), deciding to get married. Gossip about this engagement reaches the ear of Sabrina's brother Slimane (Slimane Dazi), who -- despite himself clandestinely dating Jewish singer Nina (Nina Morato) -- is outraged that his sister, an Arab Muslim, would consider marrying a black Christian.

Slimane schleps around the city to take soundings from his brothers -- quite an endeavor, considering that there are apparently 39 siblings to be consulted. Yes, in a brood of 40, we're asked to believe that Sabrina was the only female child. Djaïdani doesn't explain or dwell on this highly unlikely family-structure, which endows the Hold Back (Rengaine, also known via the more direct translation 'Refrain') with a larkishly fable-like quality. Not that there's anything fanciful about Djaïdani's casually gritty approach, which favours small hand-held digital cameras and intense close-ups of scenes that usually consist of two characters exchanging ill-tempered dialogue.

As the action switches back and forth between Slimane and Dorcy, the latter's adventures in the wackier reaches of the Parisian showbusiness and art-worlds provide the movie with numerous droll belly-laughs. A sudden third-act lurch into apparently much more serious terrain, meanwhile, perilously suggests that first-timer Djaïdani has lost control of his material's tone -- but in fact is a eyebrow-raisingly audacious build-up for yet another amusing pay-off. Not that Hold Back avoids seriousness altogether, especially during an unexpectedly tense final-reel sequence which adds yet another twist to the oddball multiple-brother angle while further touching on issues of masculinity and sexuality within France's Arab community.

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All in all, Hold Back manages to pack an awful lot into its pleasingly economic running-time, its clipped assembly of short scenes -- assembled by five credited editors -- and on-the-fly atmosphere of whip-smart improvisation harking back to nouvelle vague and perhaps even Dogme traditions, but endowed with a genially swaggering 21st-century streetwise attitude that's entirely Djaïdani's own. He even gets away with ending his movie with a poem, written graffiti-style in jagged scratches, proclaiming "Dear cinema, I love you." It'll be truly fascinating to see which way he goes -- or rather jumps -- next.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight)
Production companies: Or Productions (in co-production with Arte France Cinéma)
Cast: Slimane Dazi, Stéphane Soo Mongo, Sabrina Hamida, Nina Morato
Director / Screenwriter / Producer: Rachid Djaïdani
Directors of photography: Rachid Djaïdani, Karim El Dib, Julien Boeuf, Elamine Oumara
Music: Sabrine Hamida, Karim Hamida
Editors: Rachid Djaïdani, Svetlana Vaynblat, Julien Boeuf, Karim El Dib, Linda Attab
Sales Agent: Or Productions, Paris
No rating, 79 minutes.