A microcosmic look at France’s increasingly multicultural social margins, “Save Me” reps a shift in both theme and style for writer-director Christian Vincent. Grungier if no less carefully wrought than his prior successes “La Discrete” and “La Separation,” bittersweet drama bears a resemblance at first glance to recent Brit-made “Last Resort,” though its story focus is ultimately more diffuse and ensemble-based. Like that Shooting Gallery pickup, gritty but engaging feature could parlay fest attention into limited arthouse exposure in select territories.
First seen grimly trolling the streets of working-class Roubaix for a cab fare, protagonist Mehdi (Roschdy Zem) seems severe, even threatening — we wonder whether he’s a ticking-bomb personality a la the most famous screen “Taxi Driver.” But eventually this stony reserve is revealed as a natural guard against disappointment and rejection.
For lack of a paying fare, he picks up the vivacious, rather dizzy Agatha (Rona Hartner), who hasn’t a penny to her name. She’s traveled by hook and crook all the way from Romania, hoping to surprise the local surgeon with whom she’d had a torrid affair a year before, when he was on a visiting medical team. But doc’s flustered reception suggests he took their interlude far less seriously than she did.
Mehdi finds her temporary shelter in an under-construction home and soon takes a tentative romantic interest. But he’s also secretly involved with tart-mouthed single mom Cecile (Karole Rocher), whose volatile boyfriend, Marc (Pierre Berriau), is his friend as well. Cecile is frankly considering calling it quits with Marc, and she clearly views Mehdi as the better long-term choice.
Depressed local economy has little room for illegal immigrants like Agatha, first-generation Algerian-parented natives like Mehdi and his elder brother, Willy, or even its full-blooded Gallic lower classes. The sense of stagnation and thinly veiled prejudice is palpable. Yet this ad hoc community of the working poor and disenfranchised does take care of its own, the film shows.
Nonetheless, a quiet sense of foreboding builds steadily. Hoping to leave Roubaix and start anew with Agatha, Mehdi reluctantly takes a position with a collection agency. Meanwhile, Marc has quit his job and has been thrown out by Cecile. When Willy tries to force Marc’s back pay out of the sleazy employer, violence ensues.
Without offering any simple solutions, pic admirably shows diverse individuals united in making the best of bleak prospects. Choices available aren’t easy or attractive — either deal with a dead-water status quo or leave familiar turf for uncertain though hopefully better times elsewhere — but each decision is honorable on its own terms.
“Save Me” might easily have been staged as a noirish, moody suspenser, or emphasized the labor-exploitation angle to update “Germinal’s” protest polemicism. Instead, it opts for quasi-verite naturalism that reveals character, and narrative direction, in low-key, nonjudgmental fragments. Script may seem borderline aimless at times, but by midpoint it’s sneakily earned considerable involvement, to moving final results.
Cast is utterly credible, with the sternly handsome Zem providing pic’s quiet, magnetic center. Lensing deploys the now-voguish handheld, grainy, natural-lighting style to solid effect, while Francine Sandberg’s editing is likewise deceptively artless yet astute. Nifty score mixes hip-hop break beats with ethereal vibes and Gallic accordion.