Toronto-bowed “Savages,” the kinetic, taut political thriller from Vivendi’s Canal Plus, imagines a French Obama – Idder Chaouch, of Algerian descent, played by a stately Roschdy Zem – poised in Paris to rule France as its first Maghrebi president.
If he survives an assassination attempt.
Yet, created and co-written by novelist Sabri Louatah and cineast Rebecca Zlotowski, who also directs, the six-part limited series kicks off, in a total declaration of intentions, 250 miles south in the dowdy city of Saint-Étienne.
From a slow sweep establishing shot, it’s a motley, downbeat mix of high-rise council apartment blocks and hills. Cut to two sisters, Dounia and Rabia Nerrouche, in a car, running through the guest list for the wedding of Slim, Dounia’s youngest.
“Arab, Arab, Arab! Mekloufi, Arab. Sahraoui, Arab. Benboudaud, big fat Arab! All Arabs: Are you serious?” asks Rabia in semi-mock disgust, using a more derogatory word in French for “Arab.”
“Only French people at French weddings. Only Arabs at ours,” ironizes elder sister Dounia, as Slim and teen Lyna smile in the back-seat.
The key to the scene is that the Nerrouche clan, while French second or third-generation Algerian immigrants, are not Arabs, but Berber Kabyles, like Chaouch himself. About one million people of Kabyle origin now reside in France.
Released on Sept. 23 in France by giant pay TV operator Canal Plus, “Savages” is one of the most anticipated of big new drama series swings in France, marking the small screen debut of Zlotowski (“Grand Central”), one of France’s most respected cinema auteurs, whose “An Easy Girl” won the Directors’ Fortnight top prize this year for best French-language movie.
A Canal Plus Création Originale, produced by Marco Cherqui and Joey Faré, it also adapts the much-championed four-novel series “Savages,” from Louatah, published over 2012-14, “a modern French epic,” proclaim Véra Peltekian and Fabrice de la Patellière, Canal Plus directors of French fiction and international co-production. “From the get-go, we were struck by its addictive force and the power of its characters,” they add.
“What attracted me to ‘Savages’ is its mix of political and family space and the possibility of creating links between them,” said Zlotowski.
But if “Savages” is a political thriller, it’s not in the most obvious sense of a “House of Cards”-style trip down the back sewers of power.
“We really wanted to have a very Russian, emotional 19th century novel feel to the story,” Zlotowski adds, talking from Toronto with Louatah.
“It’s much more a family story,” Louatah adds: “One could say that a nation such as France is a bit of a family in itself. It’s a collection of families. It has family secrets, it has race, and race is a family secret in France, it’s a thing people never talk about but it’s everywhere around us.”
That focus, and mix, and sense that “Savages” is talking about the state of the nation, drives the series’ style.
From its second scene, where Faoud, Dounia’s second son, (Dali Bensallah, cast in James Bond “No Time To Die”), dashes across a Paris park to grab a taxi, the action hurtles full-tilt.
But it cuts continuously to the eve of the Saint Etienne wedding, the wedding itself, takes in a final presidential debate, introduces Fouad’s relationship to instance Jasmine, Chaouch’s daughter and campaign manager; then builds to a second-act climax where Fouad, star of the TV soap “Dr. Frank,” confronts his older brother, the charismatic fundamentalist Nazir, at the Saint-Étienne wedding.
The assassination attempt, on page 240 of the English version of the novel “Savages,” climaxes Ep. 1.
In an age where there is so much competition for audience attention, Zlotowski and Louatah were very conscious of the need to grab that, and keep it, create a compelling fiction, Louatah recognizes. That meant retooling his 1,676-page Saint-Étienne quartet, principally drawing on the first tome, “The Wedding.”
Louatah’s has a high-energy prose style: Constant dashes, “and” and “ands,” piled on details, disparate sentence lengths, questions leading paragraphs.
There’s a same sense of force and onwards momentum in Zlotowski’s direction, as she swings the camera from right to left following Fouad across the park, then back again tracking Jasmine at the campaign H.Q., and cuts, cuts, cuts. The opening 10-second initial pan of Saint Etienne is one of the longest shot in Ep. 1.
But “Savages, though it hints sometimes at family soap opera, sound and fury of substance. It’s the first drama series directed by Zlotowski, one of the most exciting of younger French auteurs.
“I was interested in having a much broader audience,” she says, explaining French film directors can feel a bit “isolated.” But she also wanted to “craft a piece of art” “create a new link with audiences, to be an auteur, so they’re not just consuming TV.”
That cuts several ways. A mini-series allows for far greater development of character, Zlotowski enthuses. She returns to character time again, in the initial scene in the car cutting democratically from the two mothers to reaction shots of the children in the back. “The TV series has so many characters that you have to be loyal to, to pay tribute to, even the nihilistic bad ones,” she explains.
Equally, Ep. 1 ends not with a bang – the assassination attempt – but its personal consequence: Fouad, the son of Algerian immigrants who has made an extraordinary cross-over into the Gallic mainstream, who’s a cover item on Paris Match, now pinned to the ground of a police van, a terrorist suspect, as end credit music swells. No close up is sustained for so much time in the whole episode as his shocked, despairing face.
“We needed to take the character from the top of his game, to really way down,” Zlotowski comments.
It is Fouad’s fate, his attempt to understand what’s happened and why, which looks set to power the rest of the series as it becomes a procedural about character, about what really makes the Nerrouche family tick. That of course is heavily inflected by circumstance and how they are regarded and regard themselves.
“‘Savages’ does not tell the story of Arabs in France, but rather of France itself and its identity crisis,” Loatah has said.
Which is where the deep politics of “Savages” comes in.
Saint-Étienne, where the 35-year-old Louatah was born and raised, reading Dostoyevsky, is “like the very average town in France that everyone knows about because of soccer but nobody’s ever been to, a French Detroit, a forgotten city,” says Zlotowski.
The “super important thing” about “Savages,” she adds, is its “representation,” underscoring the “gap between what civil society actually is like in France, and what representation is made of it, in fiction and politics.”
“We wanted to bridge that divide,” Louatah adds.
“The strength of our Republic is that it sees all French people the same. Those who deny it like you go against the history of our country,” Chaouch declares solemnly in the final presidential debate.
“You talk about vengeance,” he goes on, reproaching his Sarkozy-esque opponent about his policy on terrorism. “Vengeance is suicide. Me, sitting here, I am the candidate of life.”
It is a splendid Obama-esque hymn to hope, which slays his rival.
Which doesn’t mean he’s right. As Fouad heads home to his native Saint-Étienne to find out what’s really behind the assassination attack, “Savages” looks set to test the truth of Chaouch’s words how much may be just illusion.