'Parisienne' ('Peur de rien'): TIFF Review

Parisienne Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Unifrance

Parisienne Still - H 2015

A magnetic lead performance and ruminations on immigration elevate this otherwise familiar coming-of-age narrative. 

Director Danielle Arbid's semi-autobiographical film stars impressive newcomer Manal Issa as a young Lebanese woman who struggles to survive in Paris by herself.

A young Lebanese woman has to fend for herself in the French capital in Parisienne (Peur de rien), a 1990s-set, semi-autobiographical drama from France-based Lebanese director Danielle Arbid (Etrangere, A Lost Man). Though this coming-of-age story is largely familiar and the film, at two hours, runs a tad long, audiences will be mesmerized by the intense and multifaceted performance from newcomer Manal Issa, while French acting veteran Dominique Blanc turns up in a delicious supporting role as a professor who has a way with words. Festivals starved for films by and about women will eat this up and distributors in Francophile territories should also check this out.

“Who thinks they are ugly?” asks Art History Professor Gagnebin (Blanc) at the start of a new academic year, facing a class full of fresh, easy-to-intimidate 18-year-olds. Her course is on Ugliness in the 20th Century -- remember: this is a French University -- and one of the most eager students is the beautiful Lina (Issa), an interloper who came to France from Lebanon to study something boring and respectable but who’s been rebelling from the moment she arrived. This is not necessarily because she wanted to; when the uncle at whose house she was supposed to stay for the duration of her studies started to get inappropriate even before her first day at university, Lina ran off without thinking. Through the kindness of strangers she’s been able to find a roof over her head ever since, staying at the homes of fellow students, a women’s shelter or at the houses of the various (potential) boyfriends she meets. When asked in class to list things that are ugly, her list is a very short one: “Everything so far,” she writes.

The beauty of Arbid’s latest, which she co-wrote with Julie Peyr (Arnaud Desplechin's My Golden Days, Jimmy P.), is that the entire film sticks very close to Lina’s point of view but that she’s never made out to be a saint. It’s clear from the early going that she’s pretty, resourceful and fearless -- the French title literally translates as “Afraid of Nothing” -- and that she respects herself enough to not allow anyone to degrade her. But she’s also inexperienced and far from perfect, and those first couple of days alone are brutal and Lina’s clearly desperate, with no roof over her head and no money, resorting to stealing and manipulating people in order to survive. A sequence in which she runs off without paying for her cappuccino illustrates her money problems and later turns out to be one of her pivotal moments in Paris, as the flirty waiter (Damien Chapelle) who served her later stops her in the street and they end up dating for a while. Similarly, her spur-of-the-moment decision to sit in on that art history course cements her relationship with Gagnebin, who becomes like a godmother to her in dealing with university bureaucracy and, later, French bureaucracy at large (she’s technically an illegal alien).  

Lina’s education in Paris is of course not only academic but also sentimental, learning from her interactions with lovers and friends. If there is a throughline in the narrative, it is Lina’s growth from interacting with those around her, in classical Bildungsroman fashion. One of her biggest learning curves is her relationship with the rich businessman Jean-Marc (Paul Hamy), who is married but loves to shower her with gifts and attention as long as his wife doesn't find out. She also forges an unlikely friendship with Victoire (India Hair), a French royalist whose skinhead boyfriend believes that immigrants shouldn’t exactly be welcomed with open arms. And last but not least there’s Rafael (Lolo’s Vincent Lacoste, the cast’s biggest local name), the son of a bourgeois lawyer who’s the driving force behind a Communist student paper. Small details, such as the fact Lina finally leaves the light one when making love to Rafael, suggest he might be the one for her.

What emerges from Lina's dealings with these unlikely characters is a simple truth: Immigrants can only be demonized if they are a faceless mass, not individual people standing in front of you. But Parisienne doesn't only touch on the immigrant experience in France but also explores issues of education, liberty and other French values. Thankfully, it does so from a deeply intimate and personal perspective, so it never feels like Arbid is lecturing the viewer. And some stonewashed jeans notwithstanding, the film’s not obsessed with period details. This allows the director to talk about her personal experiences prior to 9/11, which changed the outlook on immigrants from the Middle East. But in an interesting paradox, the film also feels very immediate and contemporary exactly because it’s not a detail-obsessed period piece.

Ace cinematographer Helene Louvart (The Wonders, Xenia) further underlines the immediacy by using her camera very loosely. Generally, the images are functional though there are moments they border on the lyrical, such as when Lina goes back to Beirut to visit her ailing father and he’s only ever seen as an emaciated silhouette. A shot of a broken pill bottle explains the rest.

If the narrative doesn’t contain many surprises, what makes the journey worthwhile is newcomer Manal Issa’s performance. Her naïveté and intelligence, complete lack of fear and unapologetic desire to forge ahead are a wonder to behold. The supporting cast is also strong, with Blanc reminding audiences why she's still one of France's greatest actresses; Hamy (On My Way, Suzanne) cast very effectively against type, with his oily and sophisticated Jean-Marc the opposite of all the rough, almost primitive characters he’s played so far; and Chapelle impressing especially in a nighttime conservation on the quais of the Seine. But all of the supporting players are but passing figures in Lina’s life, as she keeps searching for her own happiness on her own terms.

Production companies: Les Films Pelleas, Ourjouane Productions

Cast: Manal Issa, Vincent Lacoste, Paul Hamy, Damien Chapelle, Clara Ponsot, Bastien Bouillon, India Hair, Dominique Blanc

Director: Danielle Arbid

Screenplay: Danielle Arbid, Julie Peyr

Producers: Philippe Martin, David Thion

Director of photography: Helene Louvart

Production designer: Charlotte de Cadeville

Costume designer: Claire Dubien

Editor: Mathilde Muyard

Casting: Tatiana Vialle

Sales: Films Boutique


No rating, 120 minutes