As America has the Coen brothers, France has Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache. While they found national success in the early 2000s (Those Happy Days, So Close), it was in 2011 that they became internationally renowned for their last movie, The Intouchables. They’re now easily the most famous and successful writer/director duo in France.
In fact, The Intouchables is recognized as the biggest commercial success worldwide for a French-speaking film. It sold more than 19.4 million tickets in France (the third largest of the history of the French box office) and 32 millions tickets outside of the country. The movie went on to earn a total international gross of ~$400M – not bad for something that only cost ~$10M to make.
Three years after The Intouchables, Toledano and Nakache are back to either confirm their talent to the world or disappoint millions of expectant fans. Samba is their crucible. For the fourth time, the pair has teamed up with Omar Sy, who won the César for the best actor in 2012 for The Intouchables and returns in Samba as the titular character. He’s working alongside Charlotte Gainsbourg, previously known for her collaboration with the controversial Danish director, Lars von Trier (she has appeared in Antichrist, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac Vols. 1 and 2).
I get the feeling that Toledano and Nakache enjoy talking about sensitive topics in their movies. After dealing with Phillipe’s handicap in The Intouchables, here they decide to address the issue of immigration. Samba Cissé (Sy) is a Senegalese man who has been living in France illegally for 10 years. When the police finally catch up with him, Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who is temporarily working as an immigration officer, stumbles into his life.
At first, this seems to smack of The Intouchables: two very different people whose paths become inextricably tied to one another. However, the directors more thoroughly explore their thesis with Samba. They turn their gaze toward the problem of illegal immigration, a serious, relevant and politically volatile talking point in France. The movie doesn’t exist to offer a solution to this problem; it merely relates the reality of how these people live and [mostly] survive in a country that doesn’t seem to want them.
Toledano and Nakache boldly describe a sick French society that doesn’t know how to handle this very real problem. They talk about how stressful life can be when you’re overworked and underpaid. It’s clearly not a “feel-good” film.
The two main characters are lost in a world without any social landmarks. They lack support from a society that doesn’t want to think about problems like poverty and the stress of the working class. It’s not hard to imagine how delicate it is to make a movie about this kind of topic, especially in France, but Toledano and Nakache do it with deft hands.
Some people might focus on the romance between Samba and Alice on an emotional level, but I don’t think that was Toledano and Nakache’s intention. And if we must discuss that aspect of the plot, we should acknowledge how their relationship is more than just a love story. It’s not some simple, well-worn tale of the kind white social justice advocate helping the poor black immigrant; both have dreams and broken hopes, and both characters need help from one another. The relationship is there to bring a necessary humanity – and even some levity – to an ultimately tragic movie.
Still, you won’t find consistent humor in Samba – just a surreptitious touch here and there. The movie is not made to be a pleasant experience; the directors are talking about real life. Indeed, this is certainly the most mature movie the French duo has made so far.
The supporting roles are well-written. Wilson (Tahar Rahim ,who won best actor for A Prophet at the 2009 Césars*), and Manu (Izïa Higelin) also contribute to the lighter side of the movie. One particular scene between Samba and Wilson is one of the funniest moments I’ve seen onscreen at the cinema in a long time.
The only real reproach I have for Toledano and Nakache is in their writing. The script is a bit too predictable and linear, unbefitting of the subtle performances and nuanced subject matter. Moreover, the soundtrack, once again composed by the Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi, feels less appropriate here than it did in The Intouchables.
In spite of these missteps, Samba works. It forces you to question your own values which speaks to how powerful the movie is. Some people may find the film leaves an unpleasant aftertaste, but I believe that is the hallmark of a good – and important – film.
Samba has a strong heart. Acting veterans Omar Sy and Charlotte Gainsbourg have immense chemistry and their intimacy plays well into the greater narrative. With their help, Toledano and Nakache deliver a touching and powerful movie about a complex issue that never gets bogged down in romance in lieu of social commentary.
As with The Intouchables, there is no doubt that this film will conquer the French box office in October. But the message in Samba is just as relevant in America as it is here. Will it see similar success with its 2015 U.S. release? We can only hope.
Movie Verdict: Win
*A Prophet, directed by Jacques Audiard, also won 8 others Césars (includes best movie and best director), the “Grand Jury” prize at the Cannes Film Festival 2009 and was nominated as the best foreign movie at the Oscars in 2010.
You can read Thibault’s account of the Samba premiere in Saint-Étienne here.