An insightful film about the challenges of love and connection that could stand to be far shorter and less shouty.
Centering on a Parisian rapper who has to deal with sudden deafness and a woman who’s on temporary leave from prison to see her son, “Faire: L’amour” (abbreviated as “FLA”) buries a poignant, confrontational exploration of loneliness and self-absorption in so many screaming matches and showy film techniques that it becomes a rambling shout-a-thon. As with his 2010 debut, “Donoma,” Haiti-born French helmer Djinn Carrenard (who co-directed and co-produced with Salome Blechmans) expertly elucidates his characters’ clumsy efforts to love and connect, but a drastic reduction of the film’s 168-minute running time could sharpen its dramatic focus and help it break out beyond Eurocentric arthouse niches.
In an opening scene ironically staged to resemble a shady drug deal, music producer Ramon (Axel Philippon) signs rapper Oussmane (Azu) to make an album of “ghetto music.” Afterward, Oussmane rushes to the hospital to stop his flight-attendant g.f., Laure (Laurette Lalande), from aborting their baby, something he manages by reading a poem to her from his Blackberry. This will not be the first time he coaxes her with sweet rhetoric, but it works, and she persuades him to leave Paris and move into her mother’s cozy poolside villa in her seaside hometown, Perpignan, in the eastern Pyrenees.
Oussmane suddenly loses his hearing while running on the beach, and his refusal to adjust results in alternately withdrawn and combative behavior that brings both his album and his relationship with Laure to a standstill. Meanwhile, Laure’s sister Kahina (Maha) is allowed a one-week Christmas break from her long prison term to see her young son, Mani. Unable to contact his foster parents, she crashes at Laure’s home, where, despite getting on each others’ nerves, she and Oussmane steal away to Paris while Laure is away working. Challenged by obstacles of a bureaucratic, financial and biological nature, the three protags’ desires, frustrations and aggressions soon reach a fever pitch.
At one point, Kahina tells Oussmane: “It’s sad to love yourself. Better to love others,” to which he replies, “They have to love me back” — a succinct encapsulation of how these individuals instinctively seek to protect themselves while longing for reciprocal relationships, a universal human dilemma at the heart of the film. Unfortunately, the helmers choose to express their characters’ egotistical, non-communicative behavior through around-the-clock rows of such intolerable hysteria that audiences may envy Oussmane for being hearing-impaired. Laure appears in a particularly bad light, as she yells and provokes people so relentlessly that one can no longer tell whether it’s the role or Lalande’s perf that’s so irritating.
It’s indicative of Carrenard’s gift for characterization that the most obnoxious person in the film also elicits the most sympathy. The industry pressures circumventing Oussmane’s artistic freedom echo Carrenard’s own experience of breaking away from a well-funded, professional production to produce this film on his own, and Azu convincingly allows his the character’s passion come through even in his most arrogant and abusive moments. Kudos also go to the helmers for not padding Oussmane’s backstory and daily social interactions with ethnic cliches.
Hence, the late introduction of Oussmane’s brother Shaban (France-based American hip-hop poet-musician Saul Williams) proves startlingly poetic. Williams’ magnetic voiceover transports the viewer back to Oussmane’s hometown of Jacmel, Haiti, where a childhood incident casts the man’s identity crises in a freshly symbolic light. Williams’ dreamlike presence in Haiti as well as the grungy heart of Paris connects the past with the present, and reinforces the film’s underlying theme of urban alienation; one wishes this intriguing thread has been woven in much, much earlier. Similarly, the events and decisions that led to Kahina’s incarceration, and the ordeal of her separation from Mani, constitute the film’s most stirring moments, yet they are only touched upon and not substantially woven into the story’s emotional fabric.
Carrenard and Blechmans each shot the same scenes using separate cameras, and while the differences in framing and the dual color grading work for a short while, their recurrence over nearly three hours lends “FLA” the feeling of a jejune stylistic experiment. Ironically, it’s when the filmmakers keep the camera stationary in favor of simple framing that the characters achieve emotional heft. The shooting was done in nonsequential order and with improvised dialogue, and under Carrenard’s free-flowing editing style, the initial spontaneity often gives way to formless monotony. Given Oussmane’s background as a rapper, Frank Villabella’s low-key electronic compositions could have displayed more energy.