Is it a family drama? A mob movie? An art house film? All three?
The Apaches (original title: Des Apaches) is a 2015 French film, written and directed by Nassim Amaouche. This is the director’s sophomore effort, and wasn’t as well received by critics or festivals as his first feature film, Adieu Gary, was back in 2009.
The central issue holding The Apaches back from greatness is its refusal to commit to any particular type of story or film. The film opens with a series of breathtaking still shots of gorgeous North African landscapes that could have been pulled directly from an award-winning National Geographic spread. As we gaze over the mountains and Algerian villages, the voiceover narration explains how these communities operate, with a council of elders democratically voting on financial matters and maintaining a communal peace. The narration holds this system up to the audience and marks it as being superior to the way business is conducted in the capitalist world.
From this introduction, it is implied that this will be a film about a small Algerian community in the mountains. But suddenly, without warning, loud noise and faster music accompany a shot of the Paris metro, and we are transported a few thousand miles, both geographically and atmospherically. The sequence of shots that follows explains how these Algerian immigrants to France have adapted their system into a way of making boatloads of money through the joint ownership of cafes, hotels, and other businesses in Paris, from which they smuggle the profits back to Algeria. From this sequence, the film’s mood shifts and leads us to believe, based on the slick and matter-of-fact way we watch an old man smuggle thousands of euros through an airport in his leg cast, and we believe we’re in for a crime drama, fraught with intrigue and run-ins with the law. Yet this doesn’t quite fit either, and throughout the film there isn’t a glimpse of law enforcement anywhere at all.
After we see what the Algerians are up to post-immigration, we are introduced to our protagonist, a thirty something Algerian named Samir who is played by director Nassim Amaouche. Samir is attending his mother’s funeral, a somber opening to his story. Later on, we see him going through his mother’s things, and are escorted through some episodes of his youth via flashback, letting us know that he was raised by a single mother and never knew his father. Meanwhile, in the present, Samir is without any close friends or romantic interests, and he has no steady job. Suddenly, the genre has shifted again and we’re looking at a story about a man searching for his purpose.
At the end of the day, it is this third genre that receives the most development, as sparse as that development may be, and Samir becomes our unlikely hero. As we watch Samir move through his world, more or less silently, we see that he is a man utterly without direction. For almost three fourths of the film, Samir doesn’t seem to make any active choices. His actions are mere reactions to those around him. He sees a man lurking on the edge of the graveyard at his mother’s funeral and decides to follow him, but doesn’t engage. He sees a woman who looks like his mother at the hospital and wanders down a hallway to gaze after her, but doesn’t pursue. He is approached by his absent father who is trying to reconnect and, despite an initial reluctance, gives in and meets with him. Even when Samir does try to express an opinion or emotion, he is demure about this self-expression, reluctant and reserved. Once Samir begins to become romantically involved with the hospital nurse, Jeanne, who uncannily resembles his mother, there is a pivotal scene that is the closest thing the film has to a climax. When Jeanne, played by the radiant Laetitia Casta, asks Samir what he is afraid of, he lists every possible fear in the book. Afraid of meeting someone, but afraid of aging and dying alone. Afraid of living, but afraid of not living. Afraid of the world in general, but afraid of his internal world as well.
“C’est tout?” asks the beautiful Jeanne, meaning ‘Is that all?’
This torrent of fear and internal worry that has been tormenting Samir throughout the film comes as a welcome surprise. Suddenly, this directionless man who has been wandering in and out of responsibilities as easily as he wanders in and out of cafes actually has a personality, a voice, and a damn poignant one at that. From this moment forward, the film’s resolution begins to take shape, though an ambiguous ending and an even less useful epilogue fail to tie up any loose ends, leaving the audience with a lot of room to fill in the blanks and decide for themselves how satisfying the conclusion of the film is.
Despite not achieving nearly as much screentime as Amaouche, Casta is the real star of the film. The actress seems to glow and lights up every frame she graces with her presence. This is due in no small part to the stellar cinematography on display by DP Céline Bozon. The most breathtaking moment of the film is not the mountainous terrain in the beginning, but a scene in the middle during which we are permitted to watch Jeanne (and her shadow against the far wall) change into a white nightgown while listening to a recording of Nina Simone crooning “Keeper of the Flame”. The long shot is taken through several doorways, and Casta glides in and out of the frame like a ghost, leaving much to the imagination and imbuing the scene with a sense of ethereal beauty.
All in all, The Apaches, is a graceful film that is beautiful to watch, but meanders back and forth seemingly without making a real statement or telling a cohesive story. The meandering attitude of the camerawork, choosing to glance at seemingly insignificant background objects and images, mirrors this. Together, the script and camerawork are reflective of Samir’s lack of direction, giving the film an intimate attitude of being lost in life that stays with the viewer long after the credits have finished scrolling.
The Apaches was directed by, written by, and starred in by Nassim Amaouche. Guillaume Bréaud co-wrote and Céline Bozon was the director of photography. Also starring André Dussolier, Laetitia Casta, Djemel Barek, and Alexis Clergeon. The Apaches will be screening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of their “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” festival Friday, March 4, 4:00 p.m. and Sunday, March 13, 1:30 p.m.