Taj Mahal: Trial by fire
by Fabien Lemercier
- VENICE 2015: Nicolas Saada’s new movie is an accomplished arthouse survival film starring Stacy Martin, who finds herself caught up in the middle of the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai
Often relegated to a strict dichotomy of intimate films or genre films, French film has tried, in recent times, to break down these barriers and make hybrid films targeted at a wider audience without compromising on artistic quality. This is the case for Taj Mahal [+see also:
interview: Nicolas Saada
film profile] by Nicolas Saada, screened in the Orizzonti section of the 72nd Venice Film Festival in the wake of its premiere in Telluride, a film which skilfully manages to balance intimacy, bordering on huis clos, with a large-scale international event: the terrorist attack that took place on 26 November 2008 at the luxurious Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai. An ambitious combination reminiscent of Espion(s) [+see also:
film profile], the debut feature film of the filmmaker (a former film critic) that was nominated for the César for Best Debut Film in 2010, which also featured terrorism as its backdrop and had a spirit of adventure abroad running through it with its London-based plot. But this time, Nicolas Saada (who also wrote the screenplay) set the bar a lot higher, wanting to set the film in India, which is always a challenge for a European director, as they run the risk of ending up making a postcard. This is a pitfall that Taj Mahal avoids hands down, thanks to a skilful mix of filming in a studio in France (with stunning sets by Pascal Le Guellec), handheld camera shots taken in the streets of Mumbai wonderfully capturing the colourful and noisy atmosphere of the city, and archive images taken by the news channels that reported on the terrorist attack of 2008 and are part of the story themselves.
Skilfully interlinking these elements like an expert, without blockbuster funds available to portray such a dramatic event, Saada elegantly sidesteps any issues by focusing his story on Louise, a young 18-year-old French woman (played by a Stacy Martin with great presence, confirming the potential she showed in Nymphomaniac [+see also:
interview: Louise Vesth
film profile]) who’s going to have to find a way to survive, alone in her hotel room, on the night of the attack, with terrorists shooting left right and centre, taking hostages and setting off explosives that soon turn the place into an inferno. A ‘Hitchcockian’ night, inspired by a true story, that the director makes into a thrilling experience through the use of sound and telephone exchanges between Louise and the outside world, where her parents (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing and Gina McKee) are desperately trying to get back to her. A dramatic and intense sequence of events where life hangs in the balance, which Nicolas Saada wisely precedes with a first part calmly showing the arrival in Mumbai of this family of expats that has come to live in the city for two years, the visual impact of the country on Louise, who’s seesawing between adolescence and adulthood, and her idle and lonely discovery of the nooks and crannies of the huge hotel. As although it simply looks like a disaster film on the surface, Taj Mahal is about a trial by fire, a brutal initiation to the violence of the world and the clear-headedness required to overcome fear ("as long as you don’t lose your head the world’s your oyster"), a lesson on the pain of those essential ties that bind humans to one another. Subjects that the director agilely skims through in a feature film as rich in issues (terrorism, a European in India in a nod to Pasolini, the relationship between a girl and her parents, etc.) as it is skilful in simply bringing them up in the context of a very well-packaged survival film (thanks to director of cinematography Léo Hinstin in particular).
Such a promising and adventurous filmmaker as Nicolas Saada needed a producer who was up to the task, Patrick Sobelman and Ex Nihilo. Co-produced by Belgium, Taj Mahal is being sold internationally by Bac Films, which will distribute the film in French theatres on 2 December.
(Translated from French)