Le Jeune Ahmed (Dardenne Brothers, 2019)

By Mónica Delgado

Again, a new film by Xavier Dolan confirms the unexplainable side of Cannes. Shot in 35mm, Mathias et Maxime is an example of a film without a course, despite the usual motifs of the Dolan trademark, which continue to give him the fame of enfant terrible (even given his current age): hysteria in the family unit, women in constant ebullition, or romantic stories of homosexuality. A sweetened, insufferable gay love story.

The main big issue with Mathias et Maxime is its staging: disperse and eclectic. The filmmaker opts for the struggling gay love relationship cliché, and the need to appeal to a trite sense of humor, where even Dolan himself delivers the worst performance of his career. The film tries to be sensible, romantic, dramatic, but only achieves exercises, rehearsals of shots, sequences. For example, there’s an improbable scene where some party guys run to the backyard to take their clothes and protect it from the rain, while in the next room (which we see via a travelling –of course) we watch as the new couple join hands in a steamy window.

But even beyond Dolan’s intention (he does have some bearable films; even Mommy was a good experience here in Cannes –where it shared the Golden Palm with Godard), it isn’t clear why Cannes still betting for this type of films, which lower the level of the competition, that has important works from Bellochio, Tarantino, Mati Diop, Céline Sciamma or Bong Joon-ho. Let’s hope this is the last time.

With the Dardenne brothers’ Le Jeune Ahmed, we go back to the universe of social realism, which made them recipient of two Golden Palms. However, this film isn’t among its best, and what’s more, it offers a polemic panorama about being a Muslim in Europe. A French adolescent, son of an Arab migrant, is attracted by the jihadist precepts and indoctrinated in the Quran. But the filmmakers pose this avocation or religiosity of the young men as a problem. If in Rosetta or The Kid, the characters undergo an implacable destiny, either for their condition of marginal people or just their free will, in Le Jeune Ahmed, it seems that the problem was in the boy’s passion for being a proper Muslim. Every prayer, every cleansing ritual or reading of the Quran is shown as part of a sickening process. And this look above the shoulder makes the move lose. Just completely unrecognizable Dardennes.

Ahmed wants to kill his teacher because, according to the Quran, women are the incarnation of evil. Motivated by the influence of a jihadist, the young man seems to transform himself in a future terrorist, not a correct of faithful Muslim, and those clues of fundamentalism make the spectator withdraw from the character. We can’t achieve empathy here like in other films of the Dardennian universe. Or is this maybe a new phase of the brothers, with characters that are subject to humiliation? One of the lowest points of their career.

In Oh, Mercy (Roubaix, une lumière), Arnaud Desplechin also stumbles. The film starts as a police chronicle of unrest, crimes and testimonies, presented from the perspective of a police man (Roschdy Zern) in a popular neighborhood of Lille, in Christmas night. Soon, the usually formidable Lea Seydoux and Sara Forestier will appear in scene to play a game of suspicions, after being detected as authors of a killing. And this game of interviews, hits, clues, reconstruction of events, of a lesser noir cinema, is what Desplechin stages.

It’s surprising that the experienced Arnaud Desplechin, author of films like Un conte de Noël or Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse, delivers a detective formula of police thriller through a script with bumps and a deplorable ending, having as a background his native city. Point aside is the how women are portrayed in the film, reflected in improbable dialogues of Roschdy Zem searching for the truth with the two detainees, which are supposed to be low class, marginal women.

Without wanting to, we cinephiles got the attack of this “triple D” of condescension, of worn festival formulas, which exemplified this permissiveness that turns out to be over “democratic”.