At the 38th edition of the Molodist International Film Festival (Kiev, Ukraine), the Fipresci jury gave its award to Versailles (France – 2008), a very moving first feature film, inspired by real-life events, and directed by Pierre Shoeller.
The action is set in Paris, nowadays. A young unemployed mother, Nina, lives in the streets with her 5-year old boy, Enzo, who does not go to school. One day, the social workers take Nina and Enzo to a shelter for the homeless in Versailles. Nina hates the place. They leave the next morning, walk around Versailles, stand in front of the château. What a contrast! They continue their trip into the woods, near the palace, where they meet a man called Damien, sitting next to a fire, near his hut, cut off from the rest of the world. They try to have a conversation but are too nervous, emotionally disturbed and wounded to be able to get close enough to each other. As Pierre Shoellers’ spokesperson, Damien mentions “the 2 million unemployed in France”. More observant than accusatory, he must have stopped trying to change his life. Not because he is lazy, but because he has not got enough courage.
Damien is resigned to his fate and yet cannot allow Nina in it. As far as her son is concerned, she has to come to terms with the situation. Far from any conventions, the two adults do not even try to be gentle with each other. They are not there to become good friends, nor lovers. The scene where she explains she is only 23 and therefore too young to be entitled to a minimum welfare payment contains sterile remarks in a weak dialogue (not up to the rest of the film dialogues).
The tragic dimension of the story abates when Nina and Damien start touching and kissing each other next to the wood fire. They are like primitives that for once have the same rights as everybody else in the world. They spend a first and last night together. At dawn, Nina leaves her son and vanishes into thin air. From then on, we expect Damien to abandon the child or to behave like a tender father. And indeed, at first he abandons Enzo, who spends the night on a bench, at a bus stop. Damien is obviously expecting him to catch the first bus, but the driver refuses to take the boy, neither does he ask him what was he doing there, alone, in the middle of the night. What an unbearable moment! It points to the lack of human concern as the main culprit for the degeneration of civilisation. Enzo goes back to the hut. Damien retains his calm, but although he keeps taking care of Enzo, he is unable to give him love and tenderness because of his own lack of roots and love. He refuses to hold the child’s hand as his mother used to. He is just there. However, the way he behaves and the way he answers the child’s questions (without any compassion, smile or tears) turn out to be very emotional.
And yet, in the middle of the huge, cold and unfriendly woods, the depth of human feelings comes to the fore. The way the scattered wood inhabitants stand together at the burial of a deceased friend reveals their kindness, human dignity, and ability to still care for one another.
One day, Nina returns to the woods, trying unsuccessfully to find her boy. Then she goes back to Vouzay, a village far away from Versailles, where she works at a geriatric hospital. We never see her again until the end of the film, when Enzo is already a teenager.
The movie finds renewed momentum when Damien returns to his father’s home, motivated by the responsibility he begins to feel for the child. And if he is looking for a different life, it is not for his own pleasure or by necessity, but for the sake of the child’s survival. Enzo has given him a reason to live. While he is unable to ensure a good life for him, he does want him to go to school and have a stable family life. The father however throws Damien out, not moved by his ‘son’s’ presence (Damien has difficulty explaining who the child is). The father finally accepts them for a couple of days if Damien pays for the lodgings, which he does, since he has found a job. But this normal life does not make him happy, which is why he vanishes, abandoning Enzo again.
Pierre Shoeller deals with social problems, but also with psychological and emotional legacy, as well as with moral issues, including redemption. Finally, he makes us think that, when faced with hardships, the most difficult thing is not to get back on one’s feet, but to free oneself from the yoke of one’s own pain.
The realism of this movie hurts. It has no happy ending in spite of appearances, because a mother who has left once can be forgiven but never forgotten. And Enzo’s pain is permanent, the damage done – irreversible. While he could have coped with being poor, he would maybe never be able to recover from the pain of being abandoned.
The dark images intensify the gloomy subject. Even if the dramatic underpinnings are sometimes hard to believe, the perfect direction of the actors, the focus on the faces and Depardieu’s wonderful acting make this realistic film deeply moving. Guillaume Depardieu demonstrates most of his familiar screen traits: humanity, strength, violence, clear-sightedness, courage, honesty, but also personality impairments. This role has sadly re-affirmed his talent, and is a wonderful tribute to his short life and career. As a matter of fact, one minute of silence was observed in his honour during the closing ceremony, when it was announced that Versailles is the recipient of the Fipresci Prize.
This film was presented in Cannes this year (2008) in the Un Certain regard section.
Edited by Christina Stojanova
© FIPRESCI 2008