(photo credit: PR)
Directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano
With Omar Sy, Charlotte Gainsbourg
Running time: 2 hours
Check with theaters for subtitle information.
Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s latest film, Samba, is a movie that can’t decide what it wants to be: a gritty drama about an illegal African immigrant worker in France and how getting to know him changes the perspective of an upper-class white female executive or an opposites-attract romantic comedy.
Samba, which was the opening film at this year’s Mauboussin French Film Festival, constantly shifts its tone from issue-oriented drama to sweet rom-com, and it quickly becomes jarring. Just when you get into one movie, you get interrupted by the other.
That said, Samba is still an entertaining and enjoyable movie, due in large part to the charm of its leads, Omar Sy and Charlotte Gainsbourg. The movie really belongs to Sy, who has an incredible screen presence. The French actor has been a star since he appeared as the irreverent caregiver in Nakache and Toledano’s previous film The Intouchables, for which he won the Cesar Award for Best Actor.
Even when he’s in a very contrived moment, he makes every line seem utterly convincing. Just as important, he is incredibly sexy but always comes off as a nice guy, an irresistible combination.
It’s not surprising that Sy has become an international star, appearing in the upcoming Jurassic World, produced by Steven Spielberg, and the most recent X-Men movie.
Sy plays Samba Cisse, who went to France 10 years before from Senegal and has been working illegally at any job he can find and sending money to his family back home. He lives with his uncle, Lamouna (Youngar Fall), and each man has vowed to the other that in spite of the grind of their daily lives, neither will return home until he has made his fortune.
When Samba is arrested by immigration police, he meets Alice (Gainsbourg), a volunteer who is just learning how to help detainees with their legal defense. Alice is quiet, pallid and looks tired. It turns out she is a corporate executive who suffered quite a burn-out (she completely lost it at a meeting and beat a colleague on the head with the cellphone he answered instead of listening to her). Part of her therapy is to do volunteer work.
She is just supposed to take notes and help out the brash paralegal Manu (Izia Higelin). But Alice feels an instant connection to Samba – this is the romantic comedy part – and shows her affection by giving him an energy bar and sharing her precious sleeping pills with him. With Alice and Manu’s help, Samba gets out of prison but is supposed to leave the country as soon as possible.
The way Alice melts in Samba’s presence is embarrassingly obvious to everyone, including her, but she can’t help herself.
The tense, lonely, perhaps frigid white woman who comes to life in the presence of a big black stud is quite a cliché. Nakache and Toledano seem to be aware of this cliché and tiptoe around it, but it’s front and center in the story, and they can’t avoid it. In spite of that, Gainsbourg makes Alice appealing. Gainsbourg, the daughter of British actress Jane Birkin and French singer/ songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, is the rare actor who can perform equally well in two languages.
She manages to find Alice’s humanity and to make you forget that the character is basically a stereotype.
Izia Higelin is lively as the spirited Manu, and Tahar Rahim is funny as a guy who changes his nationality to whatever he thinks will impress women.
The movie turns on two questions: How will Samba manage to stay in France and make a living, and will Alice get her groove back? The sections on immigrant life are the more vivid part of the movie, and you get a sense of the constant fear that goes along with being an illegal worker.
Some scenes at the immigrant legal aid center are especially good, with a bunch of mostly older white women trying to help stressed-out workers from all over the world.
These sections feature Toledano and Nakache’s trademark mixture of comedy and tragedy.
But somehow the comic and tragic don’t blend as seamlessly here as they have in the directing duo’s other films.