TIFF Review: 'Parisienne'

Parisienne (Peur de rien)
(France, 119 min.)
Written and directed by Danielle Arbid
Starring: Manal Issa, Vincent Lacoste, Paul Hamy, Damien Chapelle, Dominique Blanc
Programme : Contemporary World Cinema (World Premiere)
Photo courtesy of TIFF.

Do stories of migration need to be tragic in order to be compelling? TIFF’s Artistic Director Cameron Bailey raised a similar question this year while defending Kim Thúy’s book Ru in the 2015 edition of CBC’s Canada Reads contest, which Ru ultimately won, and it’s hard not to frame the TIFF selection Parisienne in the same light given that the programme notes bear Bailey’s name. Perhaps the most compelling thing about Parisienne is that the story of young Lebanese migrant Lina (Manal Issa) is anything but tragic. Even her lawyer observes that her narrative isn’t a sob story when she seeks advice on an imminent deportation. Parisienne frankly depicts a story of migration that feels perfectly ordinary. It’s defined by hard work, struggles, keen survival skills, and adaptation, but none of the tragedies that often polarize the subject. Parisienne dramatizes the everyday stories that make up the life of global cities that don’t make the headlines.

Parisienne introduces viewers to Lina as she escapes the lust of her uncle, who tries to force himself upon her in his Paris banlieue where Lina has come to seek refuge and pursue and education. Lina runs and as she flees her uncle, Lina encounters trials and experiences, which, while difficult, aren’t as tragic as the potential for abuse she faced in her home away from home. Left with nothing but a bloody jacket, she does a dine and dash at an espresso bar before hiding at the local university where, luckily, some well to do keener gives her room and board out of charity. Pity the Lebanese handout seeker, right?

Lina’s story couldn’t be less marked by tragedy, though, as help comes relatively easily with a job, shelter, a boyfriend, and, in turn, confidence. She comes into her own and thrives at both school and work. Her sexual awakening is equally stark and swift. Lina goes from girl to woman just as quickly as she goes from outsider to insider. Learn the rules, learn the system; everything turns out all right.

Everything’s all right until it isn’t, though, for Lina’s status in Paris is always temporary and contingent on bureaucratic forces. Parisienne deftly injects the liminal space and shaky status that temporary residents face. Any misstep threatens Lina’s survival and Parisienne creates moments of mundane tension as Lina makes careless mistakes that most people would take for granted, but could easily get her deported. Her friendship, for example, with a group of subversive student journalists led by Vincent Lacoste (also appearing in the Festival Gala Lolo) leads her to confront the establishment but put her residency on the line as their countercultural voice draws attention. Every decision and mistake matter when one is a migrant and Parisienne makes this coming of age story a sobering portrait of one young woman’s adaptation within the system. Writer/director Danielle Arbid keeps the framing tight on Issa as the kitchen-sink realism rejects anything that could render Lina’s story rosy.

The film sometimes gets away with itself in its final act, which flutters intermittently (and incomprehensibly) between past and present, while Lina’s coyness and occasional arrogance, if not naïveté, makes her a hard protagonist with whom one may sympathize. One’s struggle to sympathize with Lina is entirely the point, however, as Parisienne challenges the audience to recognize a rather routine struggle as a challenge. The fact that one expects tragedy reveals a prejudice one carries against stories of migration.

Lina faces poverty, scrutiny, setbacks, and humiliation at every step of her journey, yet Issa wears Lina’s experience with a dignity and intelligence that grows with every burden. She doesn’t mire in her misfortune, nor does her wallow in sorrow. Lina doesn’t accept things as they are; rather, she acknowledges the faults in the complacency and normalcy of systematic indifference. Lina’s story is tragic simply because it’s so ordinary and so normalized within a society that takes its privileges for granted.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Parisienne had its world premiere at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.

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