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Miserable men
Published in Ahram Online on 12 - 11 - 2019

Screened in the Emerging Directors section of the Panorama of the European Film was Les Miserables, documentary filmmaker Ladj Ly's narrative debut, co-written by Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti. The film opens with the cheering of the masses of France's victory at the 2018 World Cup, in stark contrast to the title “Les Miserables”. Set in the Montfermeil district in Paris, notorious for its violence, the action begins with Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), a newly transferred policeman, joining Gwada (Djibril Zonga) and Chris (Alexis Mananti) on the street crime patrol unit. They drive around presumably looking for wrongdoing, but Chris has the hobby of taunting pretty women which he does to one at the bus stop, destroying another's smartphone when she tries to film him doing it. He also bullies Stéphane.
The real action starts when a baby lion is stolen from a circus owned by a gypsy, and suspecting a specific boy of the crime, the gypsy turns to the police for help. It is then that we see where Chris's power comes from: his secret connection with a man nicknamed the Mayor. The three policemen also have to negotiate with Salah (Almamy Kanouté), apparently a former jihadi always speaking of Islam at his small kebab shop. When the police locate the lion thief a fight between them and his gang ensues, at the end of which Gwada ends up shooting the boy with his pellet gun. Once again he is filmed doing it (with another boy's drone camera) and while another chase ensues the district explodes with a race riot... The film progresses in an unconvincing way, with the injured boy gathering a new group with the aim of taking revenge, requiring more unconvincing developments to arrive at a solution but ultimately conveying its message of the need to revolt against police corruption.
***
Quentin Dupieux's Deerskin (Le daim), is a French black comedy screened in the narrative section of the panorama. It revolves around a man named Georges (Jean Dujardin, best known for his role in Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist, 2011) obsessed with a 100 per cent deer skin jacket. The 77-minute film opens with a group of young people putting their jackets in a car trunk while they recite, “I swear to never wear a jacket again as long as I live”, but bizarre as this is it actually turns out to be one of the more normal scenes in the film. Georges, a good looking man in his fifties with a grey beard, is filling his car at the station when he abandons his corduroy jacket, trying unsuccessfully to flush it down the toilet. He drives to a huge mansion in which an old man sells him a vintage 100 per cent deerskin jacket for almost a 8000 Euros, throwing in a video camera even though Georges doesn't have the complete sum, but the man is perfectly nonchalant.
The whole film revolves around the deerskin jacket, a short garment with a fringe that neither suits nor properly fits Georges, who appears insanely excited about it nonetheless. The only other item of information is that Georges is in the throes of a breakup with his wife: when he calls her she tells him he doesn't exist any longer as far as she is concerned, and he hands the hotel receptionist his wedding ring as a deposit only to discover that she blocked his card on their joint account and he has no access to money. It is then that Georges starts having conversations with the jacket, doing both voices, and eventually the jacket tells him it wants to be the only jacket in the world. When he meets a woman at the local bar he introduces himself as a filmmaker, and she offers him work in the porn business, but it is with the bartender Denis (Adèle Haenel), a film editor who likes to rearrange existing films like Pulp Fiction to “make them suck” that he forges a connection, telling her his crew are in Siberia preparing for a large-scale production and giving her some of his own footage to edit, but soon he starts asking her for money. In the meantime he is collecting all the deerskin items he can find. Georges dislodges the ceiling fan, sharpens one of its blades by dragging it along the asphalt while driving at speed, and starts killing people to divest them of their jackets.
Filmmaker Quentin Dupieux – whose work includes Rubber (2010), Wrong (2012), Reality (2014) and, his latest, the winner of a People's Choice Award at Montréal Festival of New Cinema, Keep an Eye Out (2018) manages to grip the viewer without offering much in the way of explanation, making excellent use of the humorously atmospheric music and posing genuine questions about reality, identity – and filmmaking.
***
Carte blanche section of the Panorama this year screened one of the Italian classics Lardi di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves), one of Italy's old and magical productions, directed by Vittorio De Sica in 1948. The 90-minute film opens with the poor man Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) finally offered a job but on condition that he has to have a bicycle before he can take it: he will use it to go around Rome pasting film posters on the walls. Antonio doesn't have the money to pay the man who has been fixing his bike, which has been broken for a long time, and so his wife Maria (Lianella Carell) gathers all the bed sheets of the house and sells them so that her husband can redeem his bicycle.
The couple's son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) is extremely excited about the bicycle. On his first day with the bicycle, Antonio offers his son a lift. But, while going about his new job, the bicycle is stolen. Antonio chases the thief through the streets of Rome until he finally loses him. So, desperate, Antonio and Bruno head to a place where all the stolen bicycles are gathered. Antonio cannot find his bicycle there, but the search continues, with random accusations on the street, in the market and even at church where Antonio interrupts the service and creates a huge commotion.
The relation between father and son seems to change when Antonio fails to protect his bicycle, and it's as if his desperation to have it back is an attempt to regain his status as a father capable of giving his son the protection he requires. This is clear in the scene of the restaurant where Antonio wants to order all the expensive dishes that the rich people next to them are eating. When he grows tired of searching for his bicycle, however, Antonio — noticing and monitoring an unattended bicycle other than his own — finally decides to steal it. In the event he is caught and beaten up, however, right before Bruno. Staiola's performance was epic with an expressive face communicating mixed emotions, insecurity, deep sorrow and yearning for respect.
De Sica manages to offer a panoramic tour of Rome in 1948 in this cinematic critique of Italian society, presenting all the contradictions and pains of a country heading for the unknown. The film won the Silver Ribbon Award for Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Film, Best Score and Best Screenplay at the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists Festival in 1949, as well as the BAFTA Award and the Bodil Award for Best European Film in 1951.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.


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