So slight in the telling that the story practically sublimates onscreen, Amor Hakkar’s brittle, heart-breaking mellow-drama “A Few Days of Respite” follows a gay Iranian couple who trade persecution back home, where homosexuality is punishable by death, for whatever fate awaits after illegally crossing into France. Helmer’s abundant humanism comes through in the choice of subject, which was inspired by a Gallic news story, though the performances (including Hakkar in the lead role) are too muted and the presentation too minimalist to appeal to auds beyond the festival and arthouse fringe.
Pic’s subtlety is so pronounced that even the fact the two men are romantically involved — as opposed to simply being comfortable toweling dry in front of one another — is in question. While the film needn’t be more explicit, a more expressive cast would have done wonders. As Mohsen, Hakkar looks both thoughtful and weary, but is otherwise a cipher, while Samir Guesmi plays his younger companion, Hassan, who could pass for his simpleminded son.
“I love you, Hassan, but I would have left Iran without you,” Mohsen admits after they cross the French border. Ironically, the first person they encounter while trying to make their way to Paris, and a better life, is a suicidal old man — an early indication that France is not perfect either, even though here the pair are finally allowed to love. Another filmmaker surely would have celebrated that freedom with some sort of physical interaction between the two (even the pic’s title suggests an opportunity, however brief, to be themselves), but the paranoid couple cannot relax until they reach their destination.
The smartest plan would be to keep a low profile, but Mohsen can’t resist interceding when he sees an older woman, Yolande (Marina Vlady), struggling with her luggage at a rural train station. Because Hassan maintains a careful distance, Yolande doesn’t realize that this helpful stranger is not alone. As a gesture of empathy — as well as open defiance to France’s illegal immigration policy — she offers him first a job and, eventually, a way to sort out his situation, clearly unaware of its complexity.
While the broad strokes of the story are sincere and its intentions well-placed, the pic feels almost threadbare at this length. Hakkar’s script sorely lacks subplots, complications or narrative business to justify its feature status. The two men utter no more than a couple lines of commentary on the conditions they left behind, and soulful looks aside, the performers aren’t strong enough to convey this history in silence. Apart from a few moments of gentle humor, the pic leaves it to our imaginations to flesh out these characters.
No Iranian director would dare tell this story, but Algerian-born Hakkar’s approach feels unnecessarily conservative for a non-native. The helmer waits until the film’s cold epilogue — an upsetting glimpse four months ahead in time — to make his statement, otherwise leaving us to ponder Yolande’s unique (and arguably unlikely) connection with Mohsen.
Tech credits, while adequate, are undistinguished. Abrasive sound mix could use retooling before release.