'Ma Fille': Film Review

Courtesy of Mars Films
An intriguing if somewhat pedestrian stroll through seedy Paris.

Actress turned director Naidra Ayadi's debut feature stars Roschdy Zem as a father searching for his daughter in the City of Light.

Like a low-key, realistic take on Taken, the French dramatic thriller Ma Fille follows a father searching for his missing daughter during one long and despairing Paris night.

Heavy on mood and ambiance, this first feature from actress-turned-director Naidra Ayadi (Polisse) doesn’t always ratchet up the tension it should and fails to nail down its ending, though it still provides an intriguing glimpse into the world of sex workers and other marginal figures scraping by in the City of Light. After a modest release at home, the film could travel to festivals and select art-houses specializing in Francophone fare.

Roschdy Zem (Point Blank, director of Chocolat) stars as Hakim, an Algerian-born laborer who fled his homeland for France during the civil war of the 1990s, settling into a quiet wooded town where he’s been working in a lumberyard for the last two decades. Along with his wife (Darina Al Joundi) and teenage daughter, Nedjma (Natacha Krief), Hakim is eagerly awaiting the return of his eldest, Leila (Doria Achour), for Christmas. But the latter, who moved to Paris to become a hairdresser, suddenly cancels her trip, prompting Hakim and Nedjma to go and find out what happened.

Adapted from Bernard Clavel’s novel, the story sticks close by Hakim’s side as he gradually discovers that Leila’s Parisian life is not exactly what is was cracked up to be. The swanky hair salon where she was supposed to be interning hasn’t seen her for months, while the upscale address she gave to her parents is not where she currently resides.

When Hakim and Nedjma get wind that Leila may be living on the Rue Saint-Denis, which is one of Paris’ remaining red-light districts, it’s fairly clear where Ma Fille is headed. But despite the predicable narrative, Ayadi manages to keep things interesting enough by focusing on Hakim’s growing awareness of his daughter’s fate, which he refuses to acknowledge until he’s forced to face the facts: Not everyone makes it in the big city, and those that do often make difficult sacrifices.

“It’s every man for himself, that’s the way it is,” is how someone describes Paris early on, and in some ways Ayadi’s movie is an advertisement for people not to move there. The streets are dirty and menacing, everyone looks at you suspiciously and it’s almost impossible to find a helping hand. A telling scene has Nedjma giving up her seat on a metro platform to a pregnant woman, only to have the latter chastised by a senior citizen who claims she’s “exaggerating.” Typiquement parisien.

Although the film makes a few such keen observations and never overplays the heroic “daddy porn” side of the plot, it could have used a little more suspense and adrenaline, even if Zem does go all Liam Neeson at one point. The closing set-piece, where Hakim trails a high-class call girl (Camille Aguilar) into an Eyes Wide Shut lair that Leila apparently frequents, comes across as rather corny, while a happy ending feels tacked on — as if the filmmakers couldn’t face the grim reality of their own movie. They also could have dug deeper into Hakim's persona, which we only grasp through shreds of dialogue.

Yet as a portrait of modern-day Paris and its discontents, Ma Fille (which translates to My Daughter) packs a subtle punch. Working with DP Guillaume Schiffman (The Artist), Ayadi captures the rougher, gloomier side of a place that tends to be idealized in most films, showing how cold and uninviting the city can be for people, like Hakim, who remain eternal outsiders. It’s the flipside to the enchanting backdrop that’s served so many New Wave classics — or the recent Louis Garrel movie — and a reminder of how the notion that “Paris Belongs to Us” (as per the 1961 Jacques Rivette film) only holds true for some people.   

Production companies: Nolita Cinema, Ardimages, Mars Films, C8 Films, Sagax Entertainment, Les Films ACA
Cast: Roschdy Zem, Natacha Krief, Darina Al Joundi, Camille Aguilar, Doria Achour, Faycal Safi
Director, screenwriter: Naidra Ayadi, based on the novel
Le Voyage du pere by Bernard Clavel
Producers: Thierry Ardisson, Maxime Delauney, Romain Rousseau
Director of photography: Guillaume Schiffman
Production designer: Samantha Gordowsky
Editor: Anny Danche
Composer: Alexis Rault
Casting director: Laurent Couraud
Sales: WTFilms

In French
80 minutes