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The French Kids Are Not Alright: Recent French Films Tell the Stories of Troubled Youth

Several new films address the challenges facing a new generation in France.

apple in my eye locarno

“The Apple In My Eye”

This article was produced as part of the Locarno Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring journalists at the Locarno Film Festival, a collaboration between the Locarno Film Festival, IndieWire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center with the support of Film Comment and the Swiss Alliance of Film Journalists.

“In France, young people get hell from the government who tells them to stop dreaming, to be more grounded.” – Axelle Ropert

During the conference following the press screening of her third feature film, “The Apple of My Eye” — which was competing for the Golden Leopard at the 69th Locarno International Film Festival — Axelle Ropert said that she “absolutely” wanted to depict today’s European youth in her new film. That will come as a surprise to those who have followed Ropert’s work as a screenwriter, director and film critic known for her disinterest in films that deal with modern-day concerns. But that was before modern-day concerns demanded a new approach from European directors. That was before the Greek crisis, the attacks against Charlie Hebdo and in Paris on November 13. That was before Brexit and the terrorist attack in Nice that took place a few weeks before the festival and took the lives of 85 people on July 14. The world is changing rapidly, and even a filmmaker like Ropert can’t resist the urge to engage with it.

This impulse comes from a specific sense of urgency produced by the violent intrusion of reality in French and European quotidian life. From the financial crisis to globalized terrorism, various phenomena are forcing directors to confront the real in order to understand it, explain it or simply bear witness to the chaos. And because those issues directly concern young people, the very fabric of their future lives, many of the French films shown at Locarno this year tackled the contemporary world through their point of view. Zico, Theo, Sonia, Mélanie, the characters of “The Apple of My Eye,” “Jeunesse” and “Le Ciel Attendra” are not wholly representative of French youth but their destructive impulses, their frustrated creative ambitions and desires to go elsewhere belong to an entire generation.

This recent exploration of French youth is epitomized Theo, the hero of “The Apple of My Eye,” a modern screwball romantic comedy about a sighted man and a blind woman who fall in love. He and his brother Leandro, immigrants from Greece, struggle to make a living as wedding performances who play rebetiko, a type of Greek music. In more than one scene, the young men are told by an authority figure to give up on their passion or “reconvert” into a new job (predictably in the service industry). Whether advised by the cranky Greek owner of a wedding spot or more formal job recruiting sessions, the film explores the difficulty of living a young creative life.

Their Greek heritage is more than just an exotic flourish. If the rebetiko provides the existential soundtrack of the film, the financial crisis in Greece inspires the creation of the characters, allowing Ropert to situate her story in a contemporary Europe where conceiving of a stable future becomes more and more arduous. Comedy becomes a way for the director to critique a generation that has created a society in which dreaming is no longer such a reasonable proposition.

A similar generational confrontation happens in the conveniently titled “Jeunesse” (literally “youth,” but translated as “The Young One”). Julien Samani’s first feature is an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s short story of the same name. Zico, the adventurous 20-year-old man at the center of the story, is a dreamer seeking to “do something great.” But when he enters in La Judée, the imposing boat in which he hopes to find a job and that could lead him to the places he wants to go, he faces the reluctance of the captain and his right-hand-man, José (played by a disturbing, dark-eyed Samir Guesmi).

As with “The Apple in My Eye,” an impromptu job interview becomes the framing device for compulsive belittling and questioning of the young one’s aspirations and skills. Zico aspires to become a captain, but nobody takes him seriously. The hierarchy eventually shifts after a tragic event, but Zico’s arduous journey speaks to a reality facing many young people in France today: the incapacity to have positions of power in every sphere of society.

In this survival boat movie, Zico loses his innocence — an obligatory passage toward adulthood — during one tumultuous night. That process is also central to Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar’s “Le Ciel Attendra,” which explores the question of jihadism and terrorism seven years after Bruno Dumont’s eerily prescient “Hadewijch.”

At this point, it’s no secret that ISIS has focused its recruitment efforts on France. And various attacks over the past two years were perpetrated by young people, mainly young men. Mention-Schaar’s film puts a face to this tragic phenomenon, and it’s not what you might expect: The future ISIS fighter in “Le Ciel Attendra” is a young white girl; she’s middle class, well-fed and well-educated. But that doesn’t stop her from being vulnerable to online propaganda. The youth culture represented in “Le Ciel Attendra” is all too gullible. The power of ISIS propaganda compelled would-be recruits to question their own lifestyles, primarily due to the manipulation of images and the broadcast of videos on social media platforms. “La Ciel Attendra” captures this tendency in narrative form.

More generally, the specter of terrorism has been hard to ignore at this year’s festival. Locarno president Marco Solari addressed the threat head-on prior to an opening night screening at the outdoor Piazza Grande venue, assigning a political significance to the event. But what can a film festival do to combat the rage of a terrorist organization? “La Ciel Attendra” provides one answer: Cinema has a role to play in combatting a propaganda role determined by the manipulation of images. As governments and corporations are failing and refusing to erect new worlds for the future generations, French cinema has a duty to fight back by putting these stories in context.

And that’s why, in spite of some bright spots, this year’s French cinema in Locarno fell short of measuring up to our troubled times. “The Apple of My Eye” has some nice moments, but it’s obsessed with the idea of creating bonds between its characters as they form a strange community, and the film ends on a strangely conservative note. “Le Ciel Attendra” might be useful as a starting point for understanding the process of radicalization, but its flat, televisual look does the story no favors. Only “Jeunesse” distinguishes itself by the creation of this romantic character, Zico, who has admirable capacities of survival and resistance.

So are the French kids alright? These movies suggests that they’re getting there. Their generation must adapt to the threat of terrorism. This idea that it could be any of us on its receiving end is slowly working its way into the minds of more young adults; the ensuing anxieties and confusion is bound to inspire more  books, films and other artistic responses. These are just the latest examples — and it’s a good start.

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