by Fabien Lemercier
- CANNES 2018: An ultra-realist portrait of juvenile delinquency in Marseille, and a surprising and engaging love story to boot, courtesy of Jean-Bernard Marlin
"I grew up here, I don’t know where else to go". At 17 years old, Zachary is a child who comes from a poor, working class neighbourhood in Marseille, an adolescent who has spent his life on grey streets and in tower-block precincts, knocking about with his drug-dealing friends. Something of a gypsy, Zac, who has already committed “all kinds of theft” has just been released from a youth detention centre, only to learn that his mother won’t take him back. And as the home he ends up in isn’t really his thing, our guy, who has a habit of not taking advice, swiftly decides to do a runner, hotfooting it back to his old neighbourhood where he can once again feel like a fish in water. This is how Shéhérazade [+see also:
film profile] begins, directed by Jean-Bernard Marlin (Golden Bear for best short film in Berlin, 2013), presented in a special screening during Critics’ Week at the Cannes Film Festival, a mind-blowing first full-length film inspired by a unique, true story and acted by a group of non-professionals whose lives aren’t a million miles away from those portrayed on screen.
Following a prologue sequence of archive images documenting the waves of immigrants arriving in the city back in the 1960s, the early shanty towns which sprung up in the vicinity and the eventual construction of the huge concrete tower blocks, the film returns to the present day to tell the story of the chance encounter between Zac (Dylan Robert) and Shéhérazade (Kenza Fortas), a girl of a similar age who prostitutes herself independently alongside a few friends/co-workers. On the run once again from a judge who wants to place him in a new home in Toulon, Zac goes to his friend and gang leader who politely refuses to take him in as a fellow drug dealer, for fear of attracting police attention. Homeless, Zac is taken in by Shéhérazade; she likes him and lets him sleep in her small studio flat. At a loose end, he starts to spend his time hanging around her until, one day, she asks him to watch her back while she’s looking after a few clients. In exchange, she gives him some money and, as time goes by, Zac begins to provide the other girls with similar protection services. Following a brutal confrontation with a group of Bulgarian pimps, however, he is forced to ask his childhood gang leader friend for help, whose gang promptly cleans up the situation (with guns in their hands) in exchange for 500 euros a day. Zac is now a pimp, and despite his best attempts at denying it ("I’ve got respect for women but not for whores"), he is in love with Shéhérazade and she loves him right back ("This is the first time I’ve ever felt like this with a boy; I want to do more things now"). But theirs is a relationship full of contradictions, and events will take a turn for the worse, forcing Zac to make a difficult and irreversible decision…
Boasting an incredible level of authenticity thanks to its general cast, not to mention the moving performances of its two lead characters, Shéhérazade is a very fine example of well-executed cinema vérité. Although the shots are markedly and deliberately crude, they are also very finely worked by director of photography Jonathan Ricquebourg. The script, meanwhile (written by the director alongside Catherine Paillé), follows a classic line and works well, bringing adequate levels of luminosity to a very realist film which successfully sidesteps the usual pitfalls of voyeurism and sensationalism to tell the tragic tale of these young people and their town.
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