'Sheherazade': Film Review | Cannes 2018

Courtesy of Cannes
Gritty romantic realism in the French tradition.

Jean-Bernard Marlin's first feature is a love story set in the slums of Marseille.

A well-crafted first film whose turnoff is its overly familiar storyline, Jean-Bernard Marlin’s Sheherazade is a love story set in the lower depths of Marseille, where the wrong-side-of-the-tracks teen scene seems to be divided along gender lines: The boys deal drugs and the girls walk the streets, with or without pimps to protect them. The gritty environment and the non-pro cast are convincingly directed by Marlin, a native of Marseille, particularly in the pic's stronger second half. The Films Boutique release should do some business in France; beyond that, it will be a calling card for the talented young director, who co-wrote the screenplay with Catherine Paillé.

The story seems to have developed out of Marlin's acclaimed 2013 short, La Fugue, about a young delinquent and her counselor, and more particularly from his 2014 documentary Something Fierce, which centers on 15-year-old Jamal and the re-education centers awaiting him. In Sheherazade, Dylan Robert makes a noteworthy screen debut as a 16-year-old boy of the streets who has just served his first jail sentence and is still looking for easy money. The heavily sociological focus, similar to other stories searching for audiences all over Europe and North Africa, is distinguished by a strongly individual directing style that focuses tension on the young protags.  

Opening with an impressive montage of black-and-white archive footage showing the arrival of North African immigrants of yesteryear, the film immediately shifts to their contemporary descendants. Zach (Robert) is a fearless live wire with a handsome face and bleached blond hair, brash, funny and a little crazy. He has just been released from a juvenile detention center and is taken to a halfway house to finish his sentence. But instead of settling in, as his case worker expects, he skips parole and seeks out his unaffectionate mom, who has shacked up with a new man and wants nothing to do with Zach. Her rejection, which cuts deep, is repeated at intervals throughout the movie as he tries to win himself back into her favor.

To celebrate his release, Zach's buddies treat him to one of the local hookers, and it is thus that he meets the plucky Sheherazade (Kenza Fortas). After he recognizes her as a girl he went to school with, she accepts a brick of hash for her services, then refuses to sleep with him. Their back-and-forth game of "will she or won’t she" inflames his curiosity. She seems to know how to handle men. First she lets him sleep in her rented room, which she shares (much to his disgust) with the sensitive trans Zelda. Then she forces him to overcome his distaste for her work by making him watch her handle three boys, one after the other, in a doorway. "That was fast," she comments after this ordeal.

One expects Zach to force his beloved Roxanne off the streets and into an honest life; instead, we soon find him proudly pimping for her, Zelda and several other girls. After a violent rumble with "the Bulgarians" over a territory dispute, he has an even bigger fight with his former best buddy (Idir Azougli), who demands to enjoy Sheherazade's services free of charge. Zach's inability to buck the hood's conventional prejudices and admit his feelings for "a whore" lead to serious consequences, and to the film's satisfying courtroom denouement. 

It's a bleak picture of young lives, but Marlin and Paillé inject the saving grace of love and trust, which allows Zach and Sheherazade to overcome their deficient upbringings and imagine a happier tomorrow. Robert's Zach shows true grit in the final scenes, making up for some of his reckless hotheadedness. Fortas, who sucks her thumb in bed to indicate that Sheherazade is still a child, demonstrates surprising maturity in the closing scenes.

Production company: Geko Films
Cast: Dylan Robert, Kenza Fortas, Idir Azougli, Lisa Amedjout, Sofia Bent, Nabila Bounab, Kader Benchoudar, Nabila Ait Amer
Director: Jean-Bernard Marlin
Screenwriters: Jean-Bernard Marlin, Catherine Paille
Producers: Gregoire Debailly
Director of photography: Jonathan Ricquebourg
Editor: Nicolas Desmaison
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics' Week)
Sales: Films Boutique

106 minutes