Put on Your Dancing Shoes for 'Samba'!

(France, 118 min.)
Written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano
Starring: Omar Sy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Tahar Rahim, Izïa Higelin
Tahar Rahim and Omar Sy star in Samba.
Les Films Séville

Put on your dancing shoes and get ready for Samba! Samba, the new film from Intouchables directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, is a warm-hearted crowd-pleaser about the ever-changing face of multicultural France. The directors reunite with their Intouchables star Omar Sy, who gives another commanding and charismatic performance in the lead role. Sy stars as the titular Samba, an illegal alien living in France and surviving on the sly to provide for this family back in Senegal. When the immigration police nab him, though, luck turns his way by bringing him face to face with a case worker named Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who’s instantly smitten by his presence. The two don’t quite dance the samba, but Samba offers nimble footwork as the love story grows step by step alongside a nuanced portrait of multiculturalism and migration.

Samba has a spring to its step from the beginning as it opens with a roaring Gatsby party full of posh Parisians (mostly, if not all, white folks) dancing and popping champagne as Nakache and Toledano weave through the maze of the trendy banquet hall to show the other side that pulses with a different energy. The people become more mixed the further the camera retreats into the belly of the kitchen, and it finally rests in the dishwashing corner, where four black men clean up the party at a furious speed. Meet Samba, a dishwasher, scraping gourmet food off plates with his hand without complaint. As the night goes on and our hero grabs his pay (cash), gets his sandwich made of leftovers, and takes the long ride home, Samba barely needs to say a word to present a kind, likable, and hardworking man who deserves our respect. Attribute it to Sy and his magnetic screen presence.

Samba gets his dance partner when a bad turn at the immigration office gives him orders to leave the country and he lands Alice on his case. Alice, working the job as a sabbatical away from her fast-paced/high-pressure day job, finds herself taken with Samba and she forgets the main tip of advice that her colleague Manu (Izïa Higelin), an intern, tells her: “Keep your distance.” As Alice works on Samba’s case, she finds herself pulling in closer to him to get a better feel for the man who lets her lead, at first unable to divert her gaze, dumbstruck like a giggly schoolgirl, but then she becomes more invested in keeping him in the country when the case for his residency becomes tough.

Despite the few false endings and long running time, Samba offers light-hearted entertainment with thoughtful musings on the myth of the cultural melting pot underlying the bittersweet love story. Sy and Gainsbourg have natural chemistry and they make a cute and engaging screen couple to let the moral go down more harmoniously. Sy is just as likable and compelling here as he is in The Intouchables, while Gainsboug plays against type. (It’s a nice and unexpected turn from an actress who usually screams in agony in Lars Von Trier films.) She finds ample rewards in showing off her comedic side and using her subtler dramatic skills to invest the audience in Alice’s need to keep Samba in Paris and in her life.

Central to the appeal of Samba is the love story between Samba and Alice that becomes sweeter the more that Samba dissolves covertly into city’s swell. The film draws attention to the mixed race relations onscreen with the contrasts of skin colours and the diverse make-ups of the ensemble, but don’t’ attribute Alice’s attraction to a case of jungle fever. The film instead uses Alice’s interest in Samba to show a simple human connection she hasn’t felt before. Samba embodies a man that Alice sees in her day-to-day travels throughout the city, but he’s a man that she always fails to notice. It’s no coincidence that the lone glimpse into Alice’s office reveals a sea of white guys in suits, and through her attraction to Samba, the film invites audiences to see their fellow city dwellers in a new light: as people, just as how Alice succeeds by refusing to keep an institutionalized detachment from her case subject.

As Samba and Alice develop their friendship, Nakache and Toledano ripen their number to situate the pair within a larger and more diverse ensemble. Samba takes cash jobs using his uncle’s ID and finds an ally in a “Brazilian” jack-of-all-trades named Wilson (A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim in a fun and likable performance). Wilson, an Algerian moonlighting as a Brazilian to win more empathy from bosses and ladies alike, exudes confidence and teaches Samba a few steps to blend in with the life of Paris. The pair charms ladies in an office building by strutting their stuff on a scaffold (okay, Wilson does while Samba clings for dear life), and they find the gravity of living on the sly when police appear at work one day and send them on a shoeless flight across the rooftops of Paris. If not for a fellow immigrant, they would end up in jail and Samba would meet a very different end.

These episodes with Samba and Wilson are often funny, just as glimpses into Alice’s work feature droll exchanges of broken English and scuffles in which things are lost in translation as she helps people from around the world stay in Paris, but Samba shows how undocumented migrants must dissolve to disappear and survive. Nakache and Toledano offer a nuanced view on the complexity of multiculturalism (as well as the fraught effort to institutionalize it) in Samba by using these different portraits and scenes from life—back allies, studio apartments, tough work, and a suitcase that’s always by the door—to show that France has a more tenuous relationship with diversity than it likes to admit. The more the film invests the audience in Samba’s plight to stay, the more it lends the viewer the sense of looking over one’s shoulder at every moment. The film lets audiences grow attached to this character, his life, and his network of friends and allies, but Samba makes it uncomfortably clear that it can vanish at any unpredictable turn.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)
Samba is currently screening in Ottawa at The ByTowne.