Imagine a Gallic remake of “Gran Torino” with a paunchy Gérard Depardieu in the Clint Eastwood role, and you’ll be within spitting distance of Rachid Djaïdani’s “Tour de France.” Equal parts fresh and familiar, this odd couple dramedy contrives a premise in which a young Muslim rapper is forced to spend some time with a crotchety white racist. While Djaïdani is sensitively attuned to the unique details of his country’s current hostilities, you’ve seen this movie before: Friends become enemies, enemies become friends, everybody learns a little something about the banality of their ignorance and viewers go home with the image of a free-styling Gérard Depardieu burned into their brains.
A babyfaced twentysomething who can often be found hiding beneath the brim of a baseball cap that’s embroidered with a golden “F,” Far’hook (hip-hop artist Sadek, appearing here in his first film role) is a big dog in a small world. Something of a local celebrity, he gets recognized on the street and hit on by the groupies who tag along with his friends, but he seems to spend most of his time hanging out on the stoop of his apartment and using a helicopter drone to harass the old white lady who lives upstairs. It’s a decent enough life, but when Far’hook refuses a selfie with a rival rapper two weeks before the biggest concert of his career — and said rapper naturally responds by trying to kill him in a drive-by shooting — his producer gets scared and says “You’re movin’ with my dad to take in some fresh air.”
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What the producer neglects to tell Far’hook is that his father (Depardieu) is most definitely not his hero. On the contrary, Serge — a grumpy artist who’s lost his license and needs someone to drive him around — hasn’t spoken to his only child since the boy converted to Islam and changed his name. While the particulars of Serge’s past are left vague, it’s clear that his half-assed racism is predictably rooted in a broad frustration with how his life has turned out. A large crucifix hangs around the rear-view mirror of his van, but he doesn’t seem to have any real devotion to Jesus. “I thought you were Jewish,” the old man growls upon learning that Far’hook is Muslim. “It’s all the same.” To which his guest curtly replies: “I’m French, sir.”
Refreshingly, the animosity between them never boils over into theatrics and open rage — the two sides of this unlikely duo tend to keep to themselves. Far’hook chauffeurs Serge around the countryside so that he the growly widower can recreate the paintings of 18th Century artist Claude Joseph Vernet, thus fulfilling a promise to his late wife. While Serge attempts to reanimate tableaux of France’s past, Far’hook snaps photos of the present with his cell phone, and tags every clean surface he can find. A friendship starts to form (natch) but Djaïdani carefully sidesteps many of the cloying beats that can torpedo a movie like this.
A Sudanese-Algerian filmmaker who was raised in blue-collar France and presumably grew up watching “La Haine,” Djaïdani has always evinced an interest in how the country’s racial and religious anger has mutated in the years since Matthieu Kassovitz crystallized it in black and white (Djaïdani’s directorial debut, “Hold Back,” explored similar territory). With “Tour de France,” he’s knowingly taking the path of least resistance, this slick and accessible film serving as a gentle nudge for France’s more conservative population to accept that the face of their nation is changing, and to appreciate how an old society can benefit from a new complexion.
While the script lacks the cleverness to transcend the film’s transparent agenda, Sadek’s laid-back performance prevents things from slipping into the rut of an after school special. Far’hook is cognizant of his impact on Serge, but he never forces the issue; he’s just being himself, positively reinforcing his new buddy’s behavior whenever possible (“That’s the first time a white guy stood up for me,” he declares after the inevitable scene of police prejudice). Crisp, hyper-saturated cinematography and a steady inflection of Gallic rap keeps the energy high and paves over the potholes, and Depardieu — seemingly always out of breath — brings such charisma to his brusqueness that it’s easy to forget how much more interesting stories like this might be if they didn’t exclusively focus on the kind of superficial, outspoken racism that is easy to dramatize and even easier to ignore.
To Depardieu’s credit, there’s more humor in his paunch than there is in the rest of Djaïdani’s film, and when the bloated third act tries to earn some dark laughs at another character’s expense, it’s enough to suggest that the director may want to double down on drama the next time out. Given how what’s transpired in Paris between the production of this film and its Cannes premiere — and how the terrorist attacks only further legitimized the issues explored in “Tour de France” — it’s safe to assume that Djaïdani will be ready to stare a bit deeper into the darkness.
“Tour de France” premieres this week at the Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.