Friday 31 January 2020

On the road again: "Le Grand Voyage"

Le Grand Voyage, the French-Moroccan director Ismaël Ferroukhi's tale of a father-son road trip to Mecca for the Hajj, emerged into an altogether different world back in 2004. On a superficial level, its simmering juvenile lead Nicolas Cazalé was being positioned as France's hottest young thing with his performances in this and the same year's Le Clan, a heat that looks to have ebbed away over the subsequent decade-and-a-half. (Much of it, I suspect, went the way of Tahar Rahim, whom Ferroukhi directed in 2011's Free Men, and who generally appears happier and better slept.) More critically, it landed just before the movements of Muslims anywhere in the post-9/11 world fell open to such sustained and noisy question. Here is one of the few Noughties films on the subject of Islamic faith that could just as easily have been made in a previous decade, before the Towers fell. It's a generational clash, plain and simple, stuffing into automotive close quarters a stern-faced, apparently inflexible patriarch (Mohamed Majd), who insists on conducting evening prayers even in the midst of passing through Central European customs checks, and the kid in the driver's seat (Cazalé), keen to speed through the whole experience, either to get away from or back to the gal who was lighting up his Nokia 3210 - in as much as a Nokia 3210 could ever be lit up - before dad threw it in a rest-stop waste bin. Their journey will be a humbling experience for the headstrong, prideful youngster; for us, a meandering, slightly dour crowdpleaser with dabs of proto-Dardennesian realism, like the banger the pair travel in, a salvage job from the family scrapyard with one off-colour door.

Sixteen years on, Le Grand Voyage still lands for this viewer somewhere between middling and minor. It has its virtues, sure: sinuous cross-continental camerawork from Katell Djian (who went on to shoot Patricio Guzmán's Nostalgia for the Light and The Pearl Button), climaxing in the ever-impressive spectacle around Mecca itself; an elegantly lovely, Michael Nyman-like score by Fowzi Guerdjou; and an early glimpse of Roxane Mesquida as the kid's increasingly distant girlfriend. (The fact this brief appearance is mute, arriving via a photograph, rather flags how caught up the film is with the time-honoured cinematic business of dads-and-lads: right through to its final act of charity, it's as conservative as a preacher's parable.) None of this quite disguises the fact we literally know which direction matters are headed in - the plodding midsection fair begs audiences for an audible sigh of "Are we there yet?" - and a vague feel of autobiography that hasn't entirely been worked up or out into involving drama; in spots, it does feel somewhat like a what-I-did-on-my-holidays assignment that won a prize to go before the cameras. You'll have time to ponder why the film is being returned to our screens now - there's no obvious reason for a reissue, no retrospective to tie it to, although I note we're nearing the 15th anniversary of its BAFTA nomination (when it lost, not unfairly, to a more rigorous father-son tale: Jacques Audiard's The Beat That My Heart Skipped). Could it possibly be a sly political statement from our generally engaged pals at Peccadillo Pictures - that it might be worth revisiting this pair's smooth crossing of borders, now more than ever? The film's Europeanness - its hymn to free and easy movement - admittedly lends Le Grand Voyage a certain poignancy this weekend. Just not enough to justify the grand in the title.

Le Grand Voyage opens today at Manchester's HOME, ahead of its DVD reissue this Monday.

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