Dir: Pierre Schoeller. 2008. France. 113min.
Writer-director Pierre Schoeller’s Versailles is a thoughtful, cumulatively affecting portrait of three social outcasts - including a very young boy - at critical junctures in their lives. This story of a single mother who abruptly abandons her beloved son to another homeless person she barely knows is as non-judgmental as it is leisurely. Intelligently demonstrating that in a nation of plenty, many have next to nothing, the film is loaded with the understated irony of subsistence-level lives in a Paris suburb whose very name is synonymous with wealth and opulence. Fine performances and a pertinent theme make this an excellent candidate for French film weeks.
Nearly a million people in France live in precarious housing assembled from scraps and found materials. Unlike many a hard-hitting art film, this picture’s protagonists aren’t desperate refugees or foreigners lured to France under false pretenses: they’re French-born, literate and reasonably attractive. They have the right to work and access to health care. Their lives are not destroyed by drugs or alcohol. And yet, they’ve fallen off the grid and are justifiably sceptical about - or completely uninterested in - ever rejoining the rat race at even the most basic level.
Homeless 23-year-old Nina (Chemla) has no resources or prospects but showers love on her young son Enzo (Baissette de Malglaive). One night social workers take mother and son off the Paris streets, sending them to a nice clean shelter in Versailles. Nina is wary in her dealings with them, assuming the authorities will find a way to take her son from her.
In a give-away newspaper she spots an article headlined ‘Unemployment Isn’t Inevitable’ and is drawn to a quote about how there are jobs to be had.
On their way back to the train station, Nina and Enzo stumble upon thirtysomething Damien (Depardieu), who has never worked but achieved a sort of self-sufficiency living in a makeshift hut on the wooded grounds of the Chateau of Versailles. (Unlikely as it sounds, there are such people squatting in that location.) He’s honest and exudes a core strength that gives his otherwise dire circumstances a sort of nobility.
The next morning, Nina unexpectedly takes off, leaving Enzo and a bare bones note with Damien. The unexpected gesture and full-time responsibility bring Damien back into tenuous alignment with society and eventually lead to slightly-feral Enzo experiencing a proper roof over his head.
But gainful employment, an address and people who care about you - the things most people would list as vital to a balanced existence - aren’t the be-all and end-all for these damaged characters. The film suggests that society may require marginalised outcasts in much the same way it needs individuals who behave as expected.
Performances are excellent and camerawork, especially at night, high calibre. Young Baissette de Malglaive is touching and believable but never textbook adorable in his ongoing struggle to trust and belong.
Les Films Pelleas
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Max Baissette de Malglaive