by Fabien Lemercier
- Realism and fairy tale are combined in this disturbing social study, a subtle and moving feature debut on the subject of poverty, unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival
Four-year-old Enzo is just like any other boy: he chases birds in the park, kicks the first ball that comes his way and sleeps deeply. But his life is different from that of an ordinary child for he sleeps on the street with his mother Nina.
This is the starting point and inspiration for Versailles [+see also:
interview: Geraldine Michelot
interview: Pierre Schoeller
film profile], the directorial feature debut by screenwriter Pierre Schoeller (who has worked with Erick Zonca and Jean-Pierre Limosin). This touching film on the difficult subject of extreme poverty was unveiled in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.
Struggling for years, squatting and taking on temporary jobs, Nina (Judith Chemla) wanders the streets outside Paris at night with little Enzo (Max Baissette de Malglaive). Fighting – for them both – against cold, hunger, fatigue and filth, she is a very attentive mother who lies to avoid having her child taken away from her, an attitude that protects her from the dangers of life on the streets.
Sent to a hostel in Versailles, Nina and Enzo meet Damien, a misfit (played by the outstanding Guillaume Depardieu) who lives in a hut in the Versailles Palace park. Leaving only a letter by way of explanation, Nina leaves her son with Damien in order to try and rebuild her own life. But when she returns, they’ve disappeared.
Having first tried to rid himself of Enzo, Damien becomes fond of the child and takes him away from the park, enabling him to escape from the company of homeless people and providing a future for him with the help of his father (Patrick Descamps) and his girlfriend (Aure Atika). This difficult return to a "normal" life – experienced at the same time by Nina, who has become a nursing assistant in the provinces – is subtly explored by Schoeller, who sensitively handles the issue of severe poverty and the self-destructive behaviour to which it often leads.
In France today, 900,000 people live in makeshift shelters (tents, huts, caravans, garages, plastic greenhouses). By choosing this environment as the backdrop for his melodrama, the debut director makes some uncompromising observations about the dysfunctions of modern western societies where destitution hides in the corners of a privileged world symbolised by the Palace of Versailles.
There is a historical echo of the time of peasants and kings, starvation and privileges. However, Schoeller avoids caricature and reveals the extent to which marginality can also be a choice (Damien) or a source of suffering (Nina).
Covertly playing on the family-society metaphor, the director poses questions (to the viewer as well) about the future embodied by the child (who calls to mind Chaplin’s Kid). This future-in-the-making involves the creation of new emotional and social ties and the difficult process of overcoming individual egoisms. This aspect offers a glimmer of hope in this film immersed in the darkness of a harrowing portrait shaped by DoP Julien Hirsch’s subtle chiaroscuro effects and lit up by the face of a child.
Produced by Les Films Pelléas, Versailles was made on a budget of €2.6m, which included an advance on receipts from the National Film Centre (CNC), and backing from the Ile-de-France region, Centre Images and Canal +.
Les Films du Losange – who are also handling international sales – will release the film domestically on August 13.
(Translated from French)