CANNES 2023 Midnight Screenings
Elias Belkeddar • Director of The King of Algiers
“The idea was to bring Kitano into the world of Italian neorealism”
by Marta Bałaga
- CANNES 2023: The Franco-Algerian director proves that he loves his melancholic psychopaths, in this case played by Reda Kateb and Benoît Magimel
In The King of Algiers [+see also:
interview: Elias Belkeddar
film profile], one of the Midnight Screenings at the Cannes Film Festival, Omar the Strawberry (Reda Kateb) finds himself in a pickle: after being sentenced to 20 years in prison by the French authorities, he has to stay in Algiers and lay low with his best buddy Roger (Benoît Magimel). Abandoning his life of crime, or so he hopes, Omar takes a job in a pastry factory. We spoke to the movie’s director, Elias Belkeddar.
Cineuropa: There is so much affection in the way you show these two guys together. It’s hard to concentrate on Omar’s budding love story, because they seem to be the heart of the film.
Elias Belkeddar: What you are talking about is the real subject of the story, this love – because for me, friendship is just like love. The best way to talk about these things is through characters that seem to be afraid of tender feelings, of vulnerability. It allowed me to deconstruct this figure of Scarface and show “the backstage” of a gangster life like this. His name, Omar the Strawberry, is like a stage name. We are taking off his mask, this mask of a legend. It’s a story about brothers, quite literally – my own is our producer. And my dad was my main inspiration.
How did you want to portray Algiers here? You surround your leads with the locals, and you take them to all sorts of places. It’s full of violence, sure, but still, it’s a proper community.
My starting point had to do with this desire to show the Algeria I know. The country of my father, the place of my childhood. I was looking for a good excuse to shoot a movie there. This whole gangster thing came much later.
It’s my personal perception of this country: a romantic vision of it. I have an affection for these people, for their huge personalities. Also, for my generation and the generation of immigrants in general, it was frustrating that there was no representation of this culture seen anywhere. We were only present in the news, and I wanted to prove there is another world that exists.
Given the history between France and Algeria, the fact that he actually finds refuge there is almost a statement on your part.
Yes! He is a product of his country, which is France. He is not aware of the beauty of this other place. Then again, Omar is not aware of anything, really: he is not aware of his sensitivity, not aware that a new life is possible. The film shows him discovering his roots and identity, his emotions.
Tarantino is also coming to Cannes this year, giving a master class. He came to mind while I was watching the first scene in your film, with these two gangsters just walking and talking about some nonsense before they get down to business.
He is an influence, of course; he is the master, but my first thought was Takeshi Kitano. In his work, you also get these “talking” scenes, and man, he really loves his depressed gangsters. I think he is the only one who has shown that: this figure of the melancholic psychopath. It’s something that’s always moved me. I would say that Tarantino and Scorsese prefer a romantic gangster. I enjoy them, but they don’t move me. I don’t believe in them. This time, the idea was to bring Kitano into the world of Italian neorealism. Or into something like Ugly, Dirty and Bad by Ettore Scola.
These are the kinds of roles that actors must really love. Were they eager to play them?
That’s why they were so generous with me, and that’s why they made the movie: they’d never done anything like it before. There is a pleasure that comes from a challenge like that, and there is a pleasure that comes from watching them act. In French, or maybe even European, cinema, such roles are just not that common any more. The last time it worked, before it turned into a caricature, must have been in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch. What also helps is that they are both really easy-going and gentle, super tender and curious. They are nothing like that vision you have of some famous actors, who can be a real pain in the arse.
You have scenes here that are effortlessly entertaining, like when they stupidly dance for no reason.
I wanted to make a movie I would like to see. I was wondering what kind of scenes I would love to see in a trailer and wanted to find those emotions I had back when I was a kid, slowly discovering cinema. I was so amazed by it! If you only make one movie in your life, if you only get that one chance, go for it. It’s important to bring back those feelings.
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