An Inside Perspective of Pigalle

in 34th Torino Film Festival

by Frédéric Jaeger

It is clear from the very beginning – Paris Prestige (Les derniers Parisiens) has a particular way of setting situations to build its narrative and encounter movements, a way only cinema can offer. The two directors take us on a journey into their home turf, the touristy red light district in Paris known not least because of the Moulin Rouge. The Pigalle that Hamè Bourokba and Ekoué Labitey show in their feature film debut is clearly fictional and intensely true at the same time. The spontaneity of the cinematography keeps discovering all throughout the film the actors’ performances as reactions to their surroundings. It builds a vibrant microcosm, without resorting to any kind of authenticity fetish so well known in the more austere parts of auteur cinema from around the world.

Paris Prestige works both with a strong main storyline and many individually framed scenes, which work as miniatures on their own. Underneath it all there is a classic conflict that can be distilled from the many interactions and movements: a conflict between two brothers from a migrant family, each trying to make it on their own terms – with or without shortcuts. Reda Kateb (known for Lost River by Ryan Gosling and Zero Dark Thirty by Kathryn Bigelow) plays the younger brother Nasser who was just released from prison and doesn’t plan on earning minimum wage for long. Together with his brother Arezki, played by Slimane Dazi, he runs a bar in Pigalle. At least that’s what he thinks and fights for. Arezki, who has officially taken him as his employee to comply with the terms of his release, sees the trouble heading his way and tries half-heartedly to put an end to Nassers’ aspirations for a fast buck.

One of the main devices of storytelling and mise-en- scène used by the duo at the helm is to normalize situations and dynamics between characters that would in other films need to stand out for dramatic purposes. One striking example is the way French star Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds, Enemy) is integrated into the story as the girlfriend of the older brother and the parole officer of the younger one. This construction alone could seem enough to create great tensions. But not only does this remain little more than a plot point with little impact, Laurent herself appears as just another supporting actor, recognizable, but without any kind of emphasis on her performance. On the contrary, it looks like she and her characters’ perspective are being neglected in order to underline the shift in perspective happening at the core of Paris Prestige.

The two directors are quite well known in France as rappers Hamè and Ekoué, and under their stage name La Rumeur. For their feature debut they not only directed, but also wrote the screenplay together and produced the film themselves. Having created their own production unit – called La Rumeur as well – to make the film on their own terms, they have found quite a striking balance in the way they use their means. Obviously political as their hip hop lyrics are, very open to the life lying in front of them, working with both professional and non-professional actors and using a conflict-rich story, they manage to move the spectator into a perspective at eye-level with all of their protagonists. There is something very direct and honest about how the characters’ hopes, actions and relationships fit together, leaving room for each to stand on its own, not needing to earn the respect of the camera but having its compassion straight away – however misdirected, crooked, clumsy or passionate they are. A screenplay for a second part of the exploration of Pigalle is already in the works – this time focusing on the lives of women in the neighborhood. Paris Prestige could very well be the beginning of an epic story.

Edited by Yael Shuv