Mahamet-Saleh Haroun is the Chadian writer-director who, with French funds, has filed some of the most astute and engaging film-dispatches to have come out of Africa since the turn of the millennium: 2002's Abouna, 2006's Dry Season and 2010's A Screaming Man all secured UK distribution, while 2016's honourable political inquest Hissène Habré, A Chadian Tragedy played at that year's London Film Festival. His latest feature A Season in France, another notable contribution to the current wave of artistic responses to the question of migration, follows characters who might easily have figured in Haroun's earlier African films as they strive to put down new roots on the European mainland. By the standards of the huddled masses recent cinema and TV have depicted scrambling for their lives, Abbas (Eriq Ebouaney), who's fled civil war in the Central African Republic for a fresh start in Paris, has it pretty good as we join him. Granted, he has to hop from temporary lodgings to temporary lodgings, son and daughter in tow, as he waits for his appeal to be heard by the Court of Asylum; on the other hand, he's found steady employment on a market stall, and love with a colleague, Carole (Sandrine Bonnaire). Yet the further Haroun leads us inside this limbo - the dreadful pause to hear whether you have the right to exist in the place where you live and work - the more certain sadnesses become apparent. Abbas is haunted by the spectre of his late wife, which has started to impact upon his relationship with Carole; and unlike his happy-go-lucky daughter Asma (Aalayna Lis), his closed-off son Yacine (Ibrahim Burama Darboe) has grown resentful of dad's inability to keep the same roof over this already lopsided family's heads.
Spending time among these characters allows us to notice how Haroun's school of social realism is more overtly stylised than, say, the Dardennes, who worked a similar narrative beat with The Silence of Lorna and The Unknown Girl. Haroun doesn't move his camera much, and there's none of that on-the-fly, over-the-shoulder faux-vérité by which the Dardennes get us into their protagonists' heads and shoes. Instead, he stands his ground - putting down roots Abbas cannot - and simply observes, unafraid of deploying lighting shifts, sound effects or Wasis Diop's spare, unobtrusive score to move our emotions around. He spots, in passing, the sudden chill of privilege Carole feels sat in a waiting room among asylum seekers, knowing they'll likely walk out of this space with their lives changed one way or another; mainly, Haroun uses the camera to find a distinct, politically pointed line of approach to his asylum seekers - meeting them square on as vulnerable, flesh-and-blood men. Both Abbas and bookish family friend Etienne (Bibi Tanga) are suffering from a sexual impotence that feels inextricably linked to their powerlessness as citizens, their fears of a knock at the door in the night, the erosion of their role as providers of shelter. (It's the dramatic flipside of the impotency theme running through Ousmane Sembene's great African satire Xala.) We see the sting when Yacine huffs "a real father would have his papers", and we witness this man withering in other departments, too, losing his job, his temper, his nerve. With nothing to prove his existence, Abbas becomes very nearly as ghostly as his wife's apparition; first he howls, then he disappears into the ether.
That phallocentric element may complicate matters, threatening to reduce A Season in France to no more than just another film made by a man about the experiences of a man. (Factor in the racial aspect, and it's a heated argument waiting to happen.) Reassurance lies in the unarguable fact Haroun made this film about this particular man: a gentle, nurturing giant - pushing a placeholding diet of omelettes and pears upon his offspring - who, through circumstances beyond his control, comes to question all the decisions that have led him to this point. It might sound unbearably sad, but Ebouaney creates a touching, understandably harried intimacy with Bonnaire, and he's great with the kids, who emerge over the course of these 100 minutes as forceful personalities in their own right. It's a tremendously empathetic performance: deprived until the closing moments of any explanatory monologue, he instils in us a rich sense of what Abbas has lived through, the things he's seen, and just what he's lost (or abandoned) along the journey to what he'd hoped would be secure ground. The film around him operates at the level of quiet tragedy, too nuanced and melancholic to start hectoring its audience, although it gathers an unexpected, accusatory power in a final movement that carries us from limbo to haunted wasteland. The fixed timeframe of the title reflects how Haroun links migration to a form of nostalgia - a longing for the fixed points and home comforts of the past that manifests in the present as a restless, draining, possibly futile search for certainty. I don't think you'd necessarily have to have travelled from the Central African Republic to feel that way nowadays.
A Season in France opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.