in 23rd Istanbul International Film Festival

by Rüdiger Suchsland

Amour Fou in the Banlieus. A group of youngsters live in the middle of one of those anonymous satellite-towns around Paris. Nearly all of them have a north-African or Arab family-background. And most of them are in the same school class. There their teacher is rehearsing scenes from Marivaux’ virtuous play: “A Game of Love and Chance”. In several weeks, they will put it on in front of the whole quarter.

With her blonde hair and her alert, angry eyes, Lydia looks like an aggressive angel of the suburbs. She throws herself into her role. She merges in it, and starts to shine in a certain, very special way, that Abdelkrim, called “Krimo”, can’t resist. Krimo is Lydia’s pal, they’ve known and liked each other for years, and precisely for that reason, Krimo would never flirt with her. But suddenly everything has changed. Krimo loves Lydia. He can’t keep his eyes off from her. But at the same time, Krimo is cool and wants to be respected by the other boys. He does not want to lose face. The same with Lydia. Her friends Frida and Nanou are the most important persons for her. Especially Frida, who also has a role in the play, demands Lydia’s discipline and loyalty, does not accept that “some guy” could unsettle their relationship.

Director (and scriptwriter) Abdellatif Kechiche gives the strong bond between his protagonists a lot of room, without romanticizing it: They are not always best buddies, there is fierce disagreement, distrust, misunderstanding. Nevertheless everyone knows where he or she belongs. And the group stays together. At the same moment, the director shows his characters as individuals. Group-identity isn’t everything, and is not almighty.

But indeed this community is functioning with strict rules, follows clear codes of behavior. These rules are all, the kids can count on.

The key of all that is language. Kechiche awakes our sense for tiny nuances in a wonderful way, for small tones, for exact listening — even if not everyone realizes what wonderful French everyone is speaking, even when they talk in Banlieu-slang, not just when Marivaux is recited.

In that context, art is an act of liberation. With its help, one can enter a totally new world, in it, an absolutely different way of life seems to be within reach. Here for the kids art is always accessible and the only realistic path to wealth, fame, or even stardom. But at the same moment, art is more: a path to self-discovery. “Leave yourself!” shouts the teacher. And exactly in this sentence Krimo’s inner drama culminates.

Because before that moment he jumped over his own shadow, gave himself away, twice in a row. He convinced his friend Rachid to give to him the part of Harlekin. Now he will be on stage together with Lydia and the phrases of Marivaux will speak for him. As clever as the maneuver seems to be in first impression, it is all the more difficult for Krimo, who hasn’t read a book for years. But for a second time, he takes heart: Lydia’s very presence drives him mad. But when he confesses his love to her, the confused girl hesitates, can’t make a decision…

“L’esquive” is a French slang-expression which means to dodge in a negative sense: to back out of something or to con. That is exactly the condition Krimo and Lydia are in — in relation to each other, but also in relation to themselves. Love and art are an enlightening and cathartic power, motors of initiation. And when Kechiche describes that situation, it turns into a drama full of energy. And full of humor. Far away from any dry social manifesto, his movie shows characters of flesh and blood. The sad-yet-funny story deals with individual destinies as well as social and political questions.

It is already a political act to make a film about the Banlieu without stigmatizing it, without reducing it to drugs, crime, cultural conflict… With this approach the movie represents a discreet reversal, which can be observed in the so-called »Cinéma Beur«: The third generation of those French directors which parents or grandparents came from the Maghreb states are no longer interested only in conflicts of identity, race and immigration as subjects of their filmmaking.

Real danger threatens the protagonists only outside the banlieu. When we have nearly forgotten it, the social reality comes back with strength, and the end of the movie also works as an sociological, and by all means political, case study: Police-arbitrariness seen from a victim’s perspective.

Especially fascinating: the ensemble. In Lydia and her friends one can see the unbroken pursuit of happiness as well as with Krimo and the other boys, how difficult it is, to become a “real man”. Kechiche has worked almost exclusively with non-professional actors. He stages them in a spontaneous, direct, fast way, but with the lightness and fluidity of an exact elaborated drama — for example a comedy of Marivaux. Until the end, “L’esquive” itself is a game of love and chance. The camera is unobtrusive, but observes intimately, and with impressive ability to differentiate. Kechiche’s cinema is fond of reality, he brings life in the banlieu closer to the viewers and forms its feeling into their ordinary experience.

“L’esquive” looks small, but is great. An enchanting movie about love, life and the things around. And about love for literature.