×

Cannes Film Review: ‘Grigris’

This elegant, geographically vivid pic is considerably leaner than its melodramatic premise might suggest, though wan characterization makes it less immediately engaging than 'A Screaming Man.'

With:
Souleymane Deme, Anais Monory, Cyril Guei, Marius Yelolo, Hadje Fatime N'Goua, Abakar M'Bairo, Youssouf Djaoro, Remadji Adele Ngaradoumbaye, Mailao Village Women Assn. (French dialogue)

Working-class hoofer Billy Elliot was living the high life compared to “Grigris,” the eponymous hero of Chadian writer-helmer Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s typically studied fifth feature. The story of a disabled, dance-crazy young buck whose involvement in an illegal gasoline-trafficking ring eventually has him running scared, this elegant, geographically vivid pic is considerably leaner than its melodramatic premise might suggest, though wan characterization makes it less immediately engaging than Haroun’s last film, 2010’s Cannes jury prizewinner “A Screaming Man.” Distributors may well feel the same way, though fest programmers routinely starved for accessible African fare will keep the film’s dance card full.

With the film set in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena, a large but still-disenfranchised city where radio carries a slow trickle of outside culture to the population, it’s perhaps appropriate that “Grigris” opens, quaintly, with an apparent reference to “Saturday Night Fever”: Dressed in a blindingly white dress shirt that mirrors the tiled dance floor, Souleymane (striking professional dancer Souleymane Deme, sharing a full name with his character) throws down some breathtaking moves at a local nightclub, delighting the regular crowd of admirers who have nicknamed him “Grigris.”

The name is perhaps derived from the term “gris-gris,” a talisman used in parts of West Africa as good luck charm. If so, it’s a cruel choice, given Souleymane’s consistent run of ill fortune — beginning with his paralyzed left leg, a disability that at least lends his dancing considerable distinction. By day, however, it makes the young man a social outcast, excluded from the city’s mostly menial job market and deemed unfit for purpose by its eligible women. Small wonder, then, that he finds love and a kindred spirit in another creature of the night, mixed-race prostitute Mimi (Anais Monory), whose light skin has further restricted her to the social margins.

When Souleymane’s stepfather falls critically ill, running up a hospital bill of 700,000 francs, the desperate young man persuades local bigwig Moussa to employ him in his gas-smuggling racket — a widespread criminal activity in the region. Working as a delivery driver, Souleymane keeps the profits from one haul for himself, lying to his boss about a police intervention; it’s not long, however, before Moussa and his henchmen are on to him, threatening the dancer with swift execution if he doesn’t pay up.

It’s a simple moral setup in which no party is especially sympathetic: Souleymane may be the more vulnerable figure, but he’s so gormlessly impassive that we have only a semi-rooting interest in watching him escape Moussa’s clutches. Mimi, too, isn’t defined much beyond the social drawbacks of her skin and her profession. The film’s interest in their relationship seems primarily political rather than romantic: an illustration of how even the most disadvantaged societies create their own untouchables.

Unlike in “A Screaming Man,” sentimentality is strenuously sidestepped: Even Souleymane’s ailing stepfather is scarcely mentioned once the money for his care has been secured. As a result, the film is easier to admire than it is to invest in emotionally, though its pulse quickens with a dramatic, and boldly untelegraphed, feminist twist in the rural-set final reel, which is all the more surprising coming from a director whose previous films have been overwhelmingly male-dominated.

Cinematically, “Grigris” comes alive most electrically in Souleymane’s dance sequences, the camera lingering on the performer’s muscles as they knot and break with near-hypnotic suppleness. Cinematographer Antoine Heberle (best known for his work with Francois Ozon) treats Deme’s body as a landscape nearly as expansive as that of Chad itself. Outdoors, the sense of social desolation is captured in serene wide shots; as in so much African filmmaking, regional fabrics punctuate the parched, sandy earth with explosions of saturated color.

Renowned Senegalese musician Wasis Diop provides the film with a vibrant contemporary soundscape in its nightlife sequences, though by day, music is largely sacrificed for birdsong and organic urban chatter.

Cannes Film Review: 'Grigris'

Reviewed at  Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 21, 2013. Running time: 101 MIN.

Production: (Chad-France) A Pili Films, Goi-Goi Prods. production in association with France 3 Cinema, Soficinema 9. (International sales: Les Films du Losange, Paris.) Produced by Florence Stern.

Crew: Directed, written by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Antoine Heberle; editor, Marie-Helene Dozo; music, Wasis Diop; production designer, Ledoux Madeona; costume designer, Anne-Marie Giacalone; sound (Dolby Digital), Andre Rigaut; supervising sound editor, Bridget O'Driscoll;  assistant director, Francois Chailleau; casting, Gigi Akoka.

With: Souleymane Deme, Anais Monory, Cyril Guei, Marius Yelolo, Hadje Fatime N'Goua, Abakar M'Bairo, Youssouf Djaoro, Remadji Adele Ngaradoumbaye, Mailao Village Women Assn. (French dialogue)

More Film

  • Jim Jarmusch in 'Carmine Street Guitars'

    Film Review: 'Carmine Street Guitars'

    “Carmine Street Guitars” is a one-of-a-kind documentary that exudes a gentle, homespun magic. It’s a no-fuss, 80-minute-long portrait of Rick Kelly, who builds and sells custom guitars out of a modest storefront on Carmine Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, and the film touches on obsessions that have been popping up, like fragrant weeds, in [...]

  • Missing Link Laika Studios

    ‘Missing Link’ Again Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Annapurna Pictures claims the top spot in spending for the second week in a row with “Missing Link.” Ads placed for the animated film had an estimated media value of $5.91 million through Sunday for [...]

  • Little Woods

    Film Review: 'Little Woods'

    So much of the recent political debate has focused on the United States’ southern border, and on the threat of illegal drugs and criminals filtering up through Mexico. But what of the north, where Americans traffic opiates and prescription pills from Canada across a border that runs nearly three times as long? “Little Woods” opens [...]

  • Beyonce's Netflix Deal Worth a Whopping

    Beyonce's Netflix Deal Worth a Whopping $60 Million (EXCLUSIVE)

    Netflix has become a destination for television visionaries like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, with deals worth $100 million and $250 million, respectively, and top comedians like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle ($40 million and $60 million, respectively). The streaming giant, which just announced it’s added nearly 10 million subscribers in Q1, is honing in [...]

  • Roman Polanski extradition

    Academy Responds to Roman Polanski: 'Procedures Were Fair and Reasonable'

    UPDATE: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has responded to a lawsuit from director Roman Polanski that claimed he was unfairly expelled from the organization behind the Oscars. “The procedures taken to expel Mr. Polanski were fair and reasonable. The Academy stands behind its decision as appropriate,” a spokesperson said. The Academy’s statement [...]

  • Lorraine Warren dead

    Lorraine Warren, Paranormal Investigator Who Inspired 'The Conjuring,' Dies at 92

    Lorraine Warren, paranormal investigator and demonologist whose life inspired franchises like “The Conjuring” and “The Amityville Horror,” has died. She was 92. Warren’s son-in-law Tony Spera confirmed the news. Spera said on Facebook, “She died peacefully in her sleep at home.” He continued, “She was a remarkable, loving, compassionate and giving soul. To quote Will [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content