Having lived in LA for 16 years, I never imagined my first Hollywood movie premier would be at a French film festival. Yet in some regard it also seems kind of fitting, because ever since my year-long study abroad there, all things French seem to be on my radar. A cache of vivid emotions and memories awakened in me at the premier US showcasing of Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s film SAMBA at the COLCOA French Film Festival this late April. COLCOA, which is an acronym for City of Lights, City of Angels, is a nine-day stint of French film premiers in Hollywood, which takes place each April at the renowned Directors Guild of America.
The COLCOA title was originally given in 1996 as a testament to Los Angeles and Paris being the leading film capitals of the world, and in 2015, French Film Festival was officially added to the title. I was very pleased that I came on the night SAMBA premiered, because I had read that the directors’ other film, The Intouchables, was the highest grossing French film in the US in the last decade. SAMBA did not disappoint and has made me add the Intouchables to my must-watch list. Unlike so many of the recent comic-laden blockbusters and dystopian flicks; here was a film that needed neither special effects nor the swankiness of Hollywood A-listers to be spectacular.
The film follows the journey of a Senegalese illegal Samba, played by Omar Sy, who is detained and asked to leave France after scraping by on a myriad of blue-collar jobs to support his family back home. Alice, played by co-star Charlotte Gainsbourg, is a burnt out executive who is placed on leave from her job after a manic episode and volunteers as an immigration assistant as part of her rehabilitation therapy. Their lives intersect when Alice is placed on Samba’s case, and although she is advised against getting close to her clients, a relationship between the two begins to flourish. Samba is determined to get his legal working permit at any cost while Alice struggles to keep her aggravation in check.
While Samba is conflicted with living in a culture that forces him to relinquish parts of his identity in order to blend in and keep the peace, Alice must learn to open up to people and revive a self-identity that has been long repressed with her corporate job. There is something to be said for foreign movies’ tones of simplicity that make them so un-Hollywood like. At its core, this film possesses something many of the more recent big blockbusters lack- a humanity factor. This film has no need for fancy visual embellishments or dare-devil stunts, although there is a tense rooftop jumping scene as Samba and his friend escape deportation officers, and another where they hang suspended from a high rise while washing windows. The seriousness of the predicament the characters are in is broken with the interspersed and fittingly clever comedic dialogues which evoke the film’s lightness. The story, after all, is about real life and its tribulations- and that in itself ça suffit!
If foreign films don’t whet your appetite, perhaps the reception at the Director’s Guild will. It features unlimited champagne & St. Germain cocktails, craft beer, cheese and baguette platters and the local French approved macaroons from the pastry masters at Duverger.
Words by Oxana Antonova