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Arab Cinema, French Cinema, Melodrama

London River (France/Algeria 2009)

Strangers meet in London River

I’ve been waiting for this film ever since I read about the proposed production a couple of years ago and I wasn’t disappointed when it finally opened in the UK. Ironically, I saw it on a Friday night and it’s as far away as you can get from the ‘feelgood’ film that many people feel that they need at the weekend. Philip French in today’s Observer refers to “stoical realism” which is rather good. It’s deeply moving and a fine example of humanist cinema.

Plot outline (no spoilers)

Brenda Blethyn is Elisabeth, a widow with a smallholding on Guernsey and Sotigui Kouyaté is Ousmane, a West African working as a forester in France. After the bombings of July 7, 2005 they both travel to London in search of their grown-up children. Elisabeth has not heard from her daughter Jane for a couple of weeks and now she is not answering phone messages. Ousmane has not seen his son since he was a small child. He makes the trip at the behest of his estranged wife in Africa. At some point it is inevitable that Elisabeth and Ousmane will meet as they make enquiries in the same small area of North-East London.

Commentary

Writer-director Rachid Bouchareb gained an international profile with Indigènes (France/Algeria 2006), the hit film that successfully rewrote the history of the African contribution to the liberation of Vichy France in 1944. By contrast, London River is a film which focuses completely on its two central characters and eschews the politics of the bombings. Even so, the film offers several interesting social observations about diversity in contemporary society.The two central performances are excellent – and very different. Bouchareb decided that he wanted to work with Brenda Blethyn based on her Oscar-winning performance in Secrets and Lies and he delayed the shoot by a year until she became available. Kouyaté, a well-known Malian and Parisian actor, had appeared in Bouchareb’s earlier Little Senegal (France 2001). (He sadly died in April this year.) The ‘non-style’ of the film is explained by two factors. First, Bouchareb himself tried hard not be influenced by any other filmmakers and second, he faced severe production restraints. (I would still categorise the film as melodrama despite the lack of ‘excess’ in presentation, but I need to see it again – there is an intriguing metaphor about forestry and elms that I need to think about.)

The exteriors were all shot by a French crew on location in London for just 15 days when the weather was poor and the locals seemingly suspicious. Blethyn had to learn enough French to converse naturally with Kouyaté and for the two of them to improvise on set. The film was shot on 16mm (the Press Pack confusingly suggests that the original aspect ratio was 1: 1.66 but released as 1: 1.85). Interiors were all shot in France. There were also exterior shoots in France and Guernsey.

Apart from the characterisations what struck me most about the film was the representation of London. Most of the action is set in the area around Finsbury Park. Presumably Bouchareb chose this area because it has a large Turkish population and also attracts Arab Muslims. It prompted me to think about Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (UK 2002) in which French star Audrey Tautou plays a Turkish young woman (and in which Sotigui Kouyaté was a Somali man, I think). Frear’s attempted to show the ‘other London’ of the refugee/migrant worker, but even so he didn’t quite get that feel of the ‘outside eye’. For that, you need to go to directors from outside the UK. The shots of Guernsey and Brittany reminded me of Truffaut’s Anne and Muriel (Les deux Anglaises et le continent, 1971) when he tried to use the Celtic connection between Brittany and Wales. But Truffaut also made Fahrenheit 451 in the UK with Roehampton as a futuristic town. Around the same time, Antonioni presented his views of London in Blow-up (1966) and I was reminded of the park in Charlton used as the backdrop for the photograph of the film’s title when the couple in London River sit in the park (see the image above). Again in Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Patrice Chérau’s Intimacy (2001) we get a different London as visualised by an outside eye. The difference in Bouchareb’s film is that his choice of location and decision to bring in his own crew and actors (the shopkeeper who is Elisabeth’s landlord during her London visit is played by Roschdy Zem, one of the leads in Indigènes) creates a London community of great diversity. Even an interrogating police officer, who also speaks French, proclaims that he is “a Muslim too”.

This representation of London diversity is both ‘realist’ (London now reasonably claims to be the world’s most cosmopolitan city) and at the same time expressionist in dramatic terms. Elisabeth is presented as coming from Guernsey where her social life is triangulated by her brother, her conversations with her dead husband (killed in the Falklands War and her local church group). The Guernsey setting conveniently suggests why she might have a working knowledge of French (non-UK residents please check out Wikipedia) and it also suggests why she might be overwhelmed by being suddenly plunged into the midst of North London’s streetlife. (This is compounded by the use of French and Arabic as the medium for much of the dialogue.) How her reactions are read by audiences is a function both of Brenda Blethyn’s terrific performance and the experiences of the viewer. As Blethyn herself says, it would be wrong to leap to conclusions about Elisabeth. She is confused, frightened and bewildered. She says things that are easily seen as hateful and offensive, but we should be able to understand what is happening to her. Unfortunately, there are already some stupid comments on IMDB. On the other hand, I note that the highest ratings for the film come from women over 45.

This is one of my films of the year so far. July is the month in the UK when there seems to be a new French film every week. The French films that get to the UK are often very rewarding and London River sets a very high standard for those to follow. Please go and see it.

Here’s the trailer:

The film was released in the UK by a small independent distributor. There is an excellent official website with a downloadable press pack:

http://www.tadrart.com/tessalit/londonriver/gb.html

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