Review: Persona non grata
by Fabien Lemercier
- Roschdy Zem continues his directorial adventures with an unusual film noir set in the South of France, a place riddled with economic corruption and blackmail
"Guys like him, they can never get enough; they hold your head under the water," "You’re not from the same walk of life, and the first chance he gets, he’ll walk all over you," "We only lend to the rich," "Us, we’re builders; you’re a leech," "You think you can live the good life and still look yourself in the eye?", "I’ve come to settle the score." As expressed to perfection by these handful of lines of dialogue, among countless others, Persona non grata [+see also:
film profile], the new directorial outing by Roschdy Zem (who gave a fine acting performance at Cannes recently in Oh Mercy! [+see also:
interview: Arnaud Desplechin
film profile]), which goes on general release in France today, courtesy of Mars Films, plunges into those murky depths where one’s ambition to rise higher up the ladder inevitably brings with it its fair share of violence, bad company, secrets, betrayal, blackmail and money up for grabs, all set against a backdrop of economic corruption.
But paradoxically, it’s in the sun-drenched South of France that the director has chosen to set this sombre story, a loose adaptation (by Zem together with Olivier Gorce) of the Brazilian movie The Trespasser (2001) by Brazilian helmer Beto Brandt. And the result is a caustic and murky film noir, a hybrid stylistic offspring of US indie flicks and classic Greek tragedies, where there’s a fine line between good and evil (and no possible way back either). Some may opine that the film as a whole is a tad forced owing to a plot that quickly hurls the protagonists into a frightening vortex peppered with a strange type of humour embodied by the deus ex machina, the character of the thug and blackmailer Moïse (played by Roschdy Zem himself), but that’s probably because they are not familiar with the meanderings of the nocturnal world and its possible ramifications in the somewhat rough-and-ready construction industry.
10 hectares that the city council will subsequently declare suitable for construction: this is the objective that a corruptible city-council employee uses to lure in José (Nicolas Duvauchelle) and Maxime (Raphaël Personnaz), two friends who, for the last 15 years, have been minority shareholders in a construction and public works company run by Eddy (Frédéric Pierrot), whose overscrupulous management they encroach on increasingly openly until they decide to take him out of the picture altogether by scaring him off a little. But reality gets out of hand and things escalate way beyond their intentions because Eddy meets his demise in a car, and who should pop up on the scene but Moïse, a proper tough guy in the guise of a beach attendant. It was Moïse himself who committed this murder and made it look like an accident, and now he wants a slice of the business in exchange for his silence – and just as craftily, he manages to get close to the young Anaïs (Nadia Tereszkiewicz), Eddy’s heir. Increasingly hemmed in by the situation and racked with guilt, José, who has embarked upon an extra-marital affair with Iris (Hafsia Herzi), gradually becomes more and more paranoid, even beginning to have his doubts about Maxime…
Racing along at a tight pace, Persona non grata interweaves several strata: the personal (the families that know each other, the night clubs), the professional (the wheeling and dealing of the construction industry) and the social (each of the main characters comes from a different class). It does so in a fairly convincing manner, playing on the ambivalences of the various individuals to the point of painting an unforgiving portrait of ambition spilling over into greed. The deadly chain of events and the extremely solid characterisation of the protagonists (who are all played with great skill) may possibly spark a discussion or even shake things up to an extent, but the hyperrealism verging on bizarreness that the film exudes (also on a visual level, with its metallic blues contrasting with the sun-kissed surroundings) is very fitting for a film noir, a genre that is so seldom tackled in French cinema, and which Roschdy Zem has had an attempt at with an interesting and unique flourish.
(Translated from French)
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