Marseille reaffirms its status as one of the most dangerous cities in France with “Shéhérazade,” director Jean-Bernard Marlin’s accomplished feature debut. But its reputation for crime and poverty makes all the more affecting the tentative relationship between a troubled 17-year-old boy just sprung from juvenile detention and the title character, the teenage prostitute he falls in love with. Shooting in a color-streaked vérité style and coaxing terrific performances from his non-pro cast, Marlin clearly has a promising future ahead. What keeps ‘Shéhérazade’ from ranking higher in the pantheon of streetwise French crime dramas is the story’s overall familiarity. But the question of whether the love between two lost teenagers can survive such a miserable environment provides more than enough emotional pull, provided that audiences can find this 2018 Cannes Film Festival gem on Netflix.
“Shéhérazade” is a feature-length riff on Marlin’s similarly Marseille-set “La Fugue” (aka “The Runaway”), which took home the Golden Bear for best short film at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival. Marlin was born in Marseille and his feel for the area is unflinching yet compassionate. In this latest film, DP Jonathan Ricquebourg’s eye-level camera cruises the dingy corners of France’s second largest city, a deglamorized world where dead-end teenagers cook up trouble inside shabby apartments and on grey, sunbaked streets.
Zach (Dylan Robert) has just returned to the neighborhood after four months in juvenile detention for armed robbery, mugging and purse snatching (“a bit of everything,” he says). With his rangy mop of tinted hair, slightly bucked teeth and facial bruise suggesting juvie was a rough go, Zach vows to live a prison-free life, a desire that gets chipped away with each monetary and sexual temptation he’s too desperate and immature to resist.
Commanding the screen from the start, Robert is a marvelous find, a total newbie who auditioned for the role shortly after being released from the same prison as his character. Zach never loses our sympathy as his bad choices pile up, starting with his impulsive decision to ditch his halfway house and reunite with his mother who didn’t even bother to collect him upon his release from prison. As elsewhere, Marlin shows great sensitivity here, eavesdropping at a respectful distance outside the kitchen where Zach learns the hard, damaging truth that his unemployed mom doesn’t want him.
Now a penniless, homeless parolee unhireable even by a local drug dealer, Zach avails himself of Shéhérazade (Kenza Fortas), one of a bevy of prostitutes who work a drab block of his economically depressed town. Although their initial encounter ends badly, Zach soon becomes her pimp, a moneymaking scheme complicated by the fact that he’s falling in love with her.
It may initially seem curious that a gritty film told from a male point of view would be named after a female character we learn comparatively little about. But the feminine title is no mistake. Shera, as she is also called, may not be the most important character to us, but she’s a transformative figure for Zach. She gives him someone to love and protect. When three johns take Shera into a nearby apartment lobby, Zach stands guard outside and even closes the building’s front door so no one, especially him, can see her at work. Then as she gets down to business, the camera lingers on Zach as love, jealousy and financial opportunity fight it out in his head.
Eventually, like many teenage boys whose feelings of attachment to a young love can be overwhelming, Zach becomes hotheaded and impulsive. It starts with a foolhardy attempt to take on some tough Bulgarians and ends after he extracts shocking revenge on childhood friend Ryad (Idir Azougli, another great non-pro find), which leads to a riveting courtroom scene.
Marlin’s film cuts deepest when it reminds us that despite Zach’s youthful swagger and Shéhérazade’s streetwalker toughness, they’re only kids. She so misses the warmth of her absent mother that she still sucks her thumb. He’s so scared of the dark he sleeps with a nightlight, one that warmly illuminates their first evening of lovemaking. Their unfolding relationship feels so unforced and natural that the story’s well-worn urban crime genre architecture becomes ultimately forgivable.
‘Shéhérazade’, which won three César Awards earlier this year including best first feature for Marlin, opens with vintage footage of immigrants entering Marseille set to Giorgio Moroder-esque electronic music, which serves to connect past and present. Zach and Shéhérazade, we’re meant to hope, represent Marseille’s possible bright future. With pulsating colors and tender emotions, Marlin makes us root for it.