Dir: Abdellatif Kechiche. France.130mins.

Honoured as the best first film atlast year's Venice Film Festival, Blame It On Voltaire is a flawed butaffecting account of an illegal immigrant's adventures in Paris. Though localfilms by and about North Africans (notably Algerians) have long been part ofthe French film scene, first-time writer-director Kechiche brings a fresh,lucid gaze to a theme that too often invites the worst in sordid naturalism. Inits finest moments, the film walks such a fine line between upbeat and downbeatthat one would be hard put to describe the director's outlook as eitheroptimistic or pessimistic. Hopefully, its Venice prize will guarantee widefestival exposure.

Sami Bouajila, one of France's mostpromising young actors, is quietly appealing as Jallel, a Tunisian who hassucceeding in getting to Paris to seek his fortune. Passing himself off as anAlgerian in order to plead his case as a political refugee seeking asylum inthe 'land of Voltaire and the Rights and Man', he manages to wangle athree-month visa and finds room and board in a dorm for homeless men. Here hestrikes up an easy friendship with his bunkmates as he sets out to earn hisliving. When his visa expires, Bouajila decides to stay on illegally, scrapingout a living by peddling fruit and flowers in the Metro. He knows he can bepicked up by police at any moment and expelled.

Film-goers expecting a documentary on theins and outs of being an alien will be disappointed by Kechiche's approach.Instead, he charts the hero's rapport with those he meets; men and woman who,despite being French citizens, seem more like strangers in a strange land.Bouajila, by contrast, seems relatively stable and adaptable.

After the prologue of Bouajila's firststeps in the fringes of Paris life, the script falls into two distinct parts ofuneven length, centring on his relationships with two volatile and differentlyconfused women. The first is an embittered single mother of Tunisian origincalled Nassera (Atika) who agrees to a marriage of convenience, only to do anabout-face and vanish on the day of the wedding. The second, Lucie (Bouchez), ayoung nymphomaniac he meets at a psychiatric clinic where he ends up aftersuffering depression due to Nassera's defection.

The first segment provides some of thefilm's finest scenes and Atika brings to the role a fiercely poignanttemperament that her previous roles (for example in La Verite Si Je Mens)never allowed her to tap into. Bouchez is compelling as the sexually voraciousand clearly psychotic young (and pregnant) loser who clings to Bouajila fordear life.

Kechiche, a former actor, directs hiscast well, using mobile camerawork and apparently semi-improvisationalinterplay, allowing the players maximum freedom. But a more concise sense ofnarrative rhythm and story construction would have benefited this otherwisepromising debut by a film-maker of compassion and observation.

Prod cos: Flach Film. Int'l dist: Flach Pyramide Int.Exec prod: Jean-Francois Lepetit. Scr: Abdellatif Kechiche.: Cinematography:Dominique Brenguier, Marie-Emmanuelle Spencer. Prod des: Quentin Prevost,Daphne Deboassime. Ed: Tina Baz Legal. Main cast: Sami Bouajila, Aure Atika,Elodie Bouchez, Bruno Lochet, Olivier Loustau, Virginie Darmon