On the fringes of law­less­ness, an ar­son­ist saves his vic­tim

Pas­cal Elbé’s di­rec­to­rial de­but is set in France’s im­mi­grant sub­urbs

Montreal Gazette - - Arts & Life - JEFF HEIN­RICH jhein­rich@thegazette.canwest.com

A law­less French sub­urb of con­crete high-rises where im­mi­grants eke out a liv­ing, the youths run in gangs, and the cops make oc­ca­sional for­ays to bust a few heads – that’s the gritty set­ting for Tête de turc, a taut new drama get­ting its in­ter­na­tional pre­miere in of­fi­cial com­pe­ti­tion at the World Film Fes­ti­val.

The 87-minute film marks the di­rec­to­rial de­but of Pas­cal Elbé, who also wrote the screen­play and plays one of the main char­ac­ters, an emer­gency physi­cian who’s nearly killed when a Molo­tov cock­tail is thrown at his car af­ter youths mis­take it for a po­lice ve­hi­cle.

With the case mak­ing na­tional head­lines, the doc­tor’s elder brother ( Roschdy Zem), a po­lice­man, is as­signed to in­ves­ti­gate. What nei­ther knows is that the 14-year-old French Turk ( Samir Makhlouf) who threw the fire­bomb had a bout of re­morse af­ter he did the deed and, be­fore flee­ing, ac­tu­ally res­cued the un­con­scious doc­tor from the burn­ing car.

Word of the good deed gets around and the au­thor­i­ties go look­ing for the boy to give him a medal for civic brav­ery. Should he tell the truth, or ac­cept the award as pay­back for po­lice bru­tal­ity in the ’ burbs?

Based on a true story, the metic­u­lously re­searched film was a project close to its au­teur’s heart. It’s a mul­ti­lay­ered tale of mixed eth­nic­i­ties ( an Ar­me­nian in the film, Elbé is him­self of Al­ge­rian Jewish ori­gin) and the im­mi­grant “ prob­lem” that con­tin­ues to de­fine mod­ern-day France.

“ As a fa­ther, as some­one who’d de­cided to be re­spon­si­ble in life, I started to ask my­self why our so­ci­ety is get­ting less and less re­spon­si­ble and more and more in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic. I wanted to talk about that,” Elbé said in an in­ter­view yes­ter­day af­ter the pre­miere at the Im­pe­rial Cin­ema.

“ At the same time, I didn’t want to make a heavy, po­lit­i­cal film,” said the 43-year-old filmmaker, who starred with Philippe Noiret in Père et fils, a 2003 fam­ily com­edy he co-wrote and which was partly shot in Que­bec.

“ My first film as a di­rec­tor hon­ours those I most ad­mire, like James Gray

Tête de turc screens at Quartier Latin 10 to­day at 5: 10 p. m. with English sub­ti­tles. It opens in cine­mas Sept. 10 for a full the­atri­cal run. ( We Own the Night, Two Lovers) and Paul Hag­gis ( Crash, In the Val­ley of Elah). It’s made on a hu­man scale, and it doesn’t judge peo­ple.

“ I didn’t want to take my au­di­ence hostage by ham­mer­ing home a mes­sage. I wanted an emo­tional film.”

Mid­way into the movie, though, the pol­i­tics peep through. Pre­par­ing for the medal cer­e­mony, the “ hero” boy’s lit­tle brother says he won’t shake the hand of France’s pres­i­dent, “ be­cause he scares me.”

Was that Elbé’s way of tak­ing a dig at Nicolas Sarkozy?

“ Sarkozy doesn’t scare me but his pol­i­tics do – the se­cu­rity pol­i­tics that now reign in France, the re­pres­sion that Sarkozy started,” the di­rec­tor said.

“ But all the same, I’m not re­ally anti-Sarkozy. I’m not anti-any­thing. As I ex­plain in the film, po­lice aren’t all swine and hood­lums don’t all de­serve to be locked up. The truth lies be­tween the two.”

Elbé cast him­self in the film “ be­cause I didn’t feel like go­ing all around Paris meet­ing ac­tors who’d rather play the role of the po­lice­man, so the eas­i­est route was to play the role my­self.

“ The char­ac­ter is me; he’s giv­ing my point of view when he says of those young hood­lums, ‘ What do you want to do with them? Drown them all?’ ”

As a writer, his favourite char­ac­ter is the teenager’s no-non­sense mother, played by Ronit Elk­a­betz, an Is­raeli star. “ I think of the mother as a cow­boy in a skirt. She keeps her dig­nity, be­cause if she falls, ev­ery­thing else does. Through her, I wanted to pay homage to all those moth­ers in the ban­lieues who raise the kids alone be­cause the hus­band has gone. I chose an ac­tress who re­minds me of those great Ital­ian stars of the post­war pe­riod, like Anna Mag­nani. We had to work a lit­tle bit on Ronit’s French, but she speaks the lan­guage re­ally well.”

Af­ter years of act­ing and writ­ing scripts, why did Elbé de­cide to fi­nally di­rect?

“ Be­cause I told my­self I’m a big boy now,” Elbé replied. “ I had my fun as a scriptwriter, but there were frus­tra­tions, too. It’s al­ways hard to let go of your script and put it in the hands of a di­rec­tor. And since this sub­ject was close to my heart, I de­cided I wasn’t go­ing to let go this time. I de­cided to go right to the end of the ad­ven­ture – and I’m very happy how it turned out.”

His next project? Writ­ing and di­rect­ing a sec­ond film, this time about the true story of a con man who swin­dles the top multi­na­tion­als in France and, with an in­ter­na­tional war­rant out for his ar­rest, goes into hid­ing.

“ I’ve been to see the man and I want to make a film with him. No ti­tle yet, but it’ll be a film in the vein of Catch Me If You Can.”

Will he play in it, just as he did in Tête de turc? “ I don’t know. I haven’t even thought about that yet.”


Tête de turc di­rec­tor Pas­cal Elbé also wrote the screen­play and plays one of the main char­ac­ters, a physi­cian who nar­rowly es­capes death.

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