Wednesday 19 June 2019

The wanderer: "Amin"

It will eventually carry us into tricky, perhaps even problematic territory, but we won't see many films this year more steeped in life as lived at ground level than Philippe Faucon's Amin. A prologue makes a brisk survey of a community of African and Middle Eastern migrants working hard to prop up the French economy; only after we've been instilled with some sense of how these men spend their days (a hand-to-mouth existence pulling long shifts within the construction industry) and their nights (swapping wages for beer in small backstreet bars, with scant thought for the future) do we really get to spend any time with the central character. This is Amin (Moustapha Mbengue), a foursquare Senegalese who finds himself supporting two economies simultaneously. Most protagonists in the recent wave of migrant cinema have left somewhere for good; Amin, by contrast, is obliged to shuttle back and forth between his homeland and France, leaving wife and kids behind to make the Euros he can smuggle back into Senegal to help reshape the lives of his family, friends and neighbours. A lot rides on these broad shoulders, in other words: he's an especially long-distance commuter, and a man who's made himself an absent father for the express purpose of laying foundations. A further complication awaits. While renovating one residential property, Amin strikes up a relationship with its owner Gabrielle (Emmanuelle Devos), a divorcee nurse involved in a bitter custody battle with her ex. Here is a second home, if ever there was, and given the exhausting overtime the renovation entails, and the nurse's sudden desire for soothing male company, perhaps it's inevitable the pair soon tumble into bed. The money Amin once took home to his wife in person begins to be wired through instead.

You may detect the faintest strain of melodrama in this set-up - perhaps a distant echo of Fear Eats the Soul, Fassbinder's enduring tribute to the lowly gastarbeiter - yet Faucon holds it at bay, first via the plaid-workshirt plainness of his shooting style, then a deeply idiosyncratic editorial approach. That men-at-work prologue, it turns out, isn't an isolated diversion. Frequently, the focus shifts towards secondary characters - Amin's colleagues, the nurse's daughter, the old woman standing at the next window in the money transfer office - in a way that gestures towards the complexity (and possible connectivity) of these lives. (A closer precedent than Fassbinder would be Robert Guédiguian, whose work - right through to this past January's The House by the Sea - has generally kept an eye out for those washing up on France's shores.) Is it any more than a gesture, though, I wonder? Faucon's approach is such that Amin, hopping from site to site in solidarity with its characters, itself starts to seem temporary, sketchy even. There's something honourable in this: Amin's story is deemed only just more important than what's going on back in Africa, or at the next window, or in the life adjacent. The risk is that we don't pick as much up about this man as any straightforward character study would give us; that it reduces him to mute passivity, forever passed over or looked beyond. With his hesitant French-as-second-language, first-time actor Mbengue cuts a very different figure from Eric Ebouaney in last week's A Season in France; that's partly down to the relative status of these protagonists - the latter's Abbas was more settled - but also, I fear, down to Faucon's skimpy characterisation. I could never quite shake the suspicion Amin had been conceived first and foremost as a walking irony - homebuilder turned homewrecker - rather than flesh and blood, no matter how many sex scenes he's pitched into. Glib platitudes are dodged, and at no point are we allowed to fall into complacency; it's still refreshing to chance upon a movie that insists life is more complicated than most movies allow for. You'll just have to weigh these qualities against Faucon's reluctance to hold to a satisfying narrative line (c'est la vie, hein?), and his restless shifting around a blank protagonist who is finally neither here nor there.

Amin opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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