Friday, March 12, 2010

Rendezvous ’10: Welcome

It looks like Sarkozy is in for the “W” treatment from French filmmakers. Though not singled out for personal censure, Philippe Lioret’s latest film is decidedly unsubtle in its withering assessment of Sarkozy-era France. Evidently, it is particularly scandalous that the government has the gall (Gaul) to enforce its own immigration laws. Indeed, subtlety is in short supply in Lioret’s oh-so ironically titled Welcome (trailer here), which screens during the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 2010 Rendezvous with French Cinema.

Bilal is miserable in France. He wants to be in England where the love of his life legally immigrated with her parents. He has come all the way from Kurdistan to Calais, but cannot get across the Channel, though certainly not for a lack of trying. Time is ticking too. For some bizarre reason, her father is less than thrilled with the prospect of his daughter marrying an unskilled illegal alien and is doing his best to prevent Bilal from communicating with her. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so he signs up for swimming lessons at the local rec center.

Simon is also miserable in France. The love of his life just served him divorce papers. A former national champion, he now teaches swimming lessons to kids when not moping around inconsolably. When he takes on Bilal as a student, he strongly discourages the Kurdish youth from tackling the Channel. Still, something about Bilal’s romantic ardor touches the older man. In no time at all, Simon has moved Bilal into his apartment, incurring the wrath of the government.

Vincent Lindon gives an achingly humane performance as Simon, but unfortunately it is in the service of a clumsily didactic film. Still, when not making the same points over and over, Welcome has some nice scenes between Lindon and Audrey Dana as his ex Marion that actually ring true. We do get a sense of the shared history and flawed chemistry between them. Unfortunately, Bilal and his fellow countrymen have little personality, essentially serving as props in Welcome’s morality play.

To its credit, Welcome acknowledges the brutality of Saddam Hussein and his regime, at least to a limited extent. During an attempt to stowaway on a lorry bound for Britain, Bilal is unable to keep a bag over his head because it brings back vivid sense memories of Saddam’s torture chambers. Still, the tenor of the film is far from pro-war. Rather it is an overwrought condemnation of a supposedly Fascist state apparatus that heartlessly prosecutes those tolerant enough to shelter illegals like Bilal.

If viewers try to anticipate the most manipulative possible plot developments at each turn, they will never be surprised by Welcome. This film has a point to make and it is not about to let us forget it, drowning out two very well turned performances in the process. It screens today (3/12) and next Sunday (3/21) at the Walter Reade Theater and tomorrow (3/13) at the IFC Film Center.