Movie Review: Samba

I’ll go see Omar Sy in just about anything, so it’s a good thing he carries this movie. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s spotty, inconsistent, and it drags at times. It’s a social drama/romantic comedy, or rather a social comedy/romantic drama, and it might have been better if the filmmakers had chosen one or another because the parts did not combine well this time.

When I’m in France, I usually grab the opportunity to take in a movie that is unlikely to make it across the Atlantic. This one might on the strength of the directors’ previous international hit, also starring Sy. On the other hand, it doesn’t have any of the stereotypical images of France that usually guarantee a hit in the U.S. That isn’t inherently a negative for me. In my mind, Un Coeur en hiver is the exactly the sort of French film Americans eat up, and not one I personally liked. (When I’m in a playful mood and I encounter I snobby Francophile, I introduce the subject of French film – and then start waxing poetic about Luc Besson. This usually makes them turn all sorts of fascinating colors.)

The movie centers around the title character, Samba, played by Sy, an undocumented immigrant from Senegal who wants to regularize his situation and stay in France. He encounters Charlotte Gainsbourg. She says that she is a former high-powered executive who got burned out and is suffering from insomnia. She looked believably fatigued. Outside of seeming tired and depressed, there was nothing else believable about her character. I’m not really sure if I should blame the writer, the directors or Gainsbourg herself, whom I’ve liked in the past, but I suspect the blame could be divided among all of them. One necessary ingredient to make the story work was that the two leads had to have sufficient interest in one another to overcome gaps in both culture and social class. It might be understandable that a depressed, bored woman might be interested in Sy’s energetic character, but why anyone would be interested in Gainsbourg’s character is beyond me. She seems like even more of a drag than your average depressed person. (Charlotte, never go full burn out.) It’s hard to believe that she was ever an executive of any importance. Furthermore, although France might be different, you can’t just take a year off and expect to return to having the authority you did when you left, as Gainsbourg appears to do at the end of the movie. Her character barely seems capable of standing up, let alone leaning in. She wears the same black turtleneck and baggy brown overcoat seemingly everyday. When she finally returns to her work and she walks in her office and all these very Gallic looking men in business suits quickly put away their cell phones, it just looked so contrived.

It was such a let down from the opening which began with a wedding and had what appeared to be one long shot from the fancy reception, through the various levels of the kitchen until we encounter Samba working in the back as a dishwasher. While the movie’s portrayal of low-level jobs seemed to me to be, with the exception of the window washer scene, realistic, their notion of how white-collar jobs function seemed to me to be off.

It’s too bad the window washer scene didn’t seem to fit in because it was cute. Some of the funniest moments were with Tahir Rahim, who plays a Moroccan immigrant pretending to be Brazilian, so he can appear sexier. While working as a window washer in La Defense, he does a strip tease in front of a crowd of admiring office workers. I couldn’t help thinking that it was too bad that he and Sy didn’t star in a mad cap comedy about two undocumented immigrants trying to make their way in France. As it was, many of his scenes, while thoroughly entertaining, felt like they came from a different movie.

Similarly, Youngar Fall does a wonderful job as Samba’s uncle, yet those scenes feel lifted from a serious drama.

Sometimes, a movie can draw from different genres and it works. This time it didn’t. It’s not a bad movie, just an okay one. However, for Americans, it might be interesting to see because you get to see a side of French society we don’t usually bother to look at.

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