The Emotion Carries: Close-Up on Jeanne Balibar’s "Wonders in the Suburbs"

After starring in films by Rivette, Desplechin, and others, Jeanne Balibar's first feature as solo director is a clever political comedy.
Michael Sicinski

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Jeanne Balibar's Wonders in the Suburbs, which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from August 19 2020 in MUBI's Debuts series.

In 2009, Pedro Costa took a brief detour from his haunted, incantatory studies of Lisbon’s Fontainhas district to produce Ne change rien, a stark black-and-white documentary profile of actress Jeanne Balibar’s performances as a singer. A self-styled jazz chanteuse in the Jacques Brel mold, Balibar perhaps gave us a deeper insight into her art-pop origins when she starred in Barbara (2017), Mathieu Amalric’s biopic of the legendary singer-songwriter and French cultural icon. All of this, together with her work with such Cannes / Cahiers mainstays as Jacques Rivette, Arnaud Desplechin, Guillaume Nicloux, and (in the upcoming Memoria) Apichatpong Weerasethakul, would suggest that Balibar epitomizes effortless urban sophistication.

So the last thing one might expect from Balibar’s directorial debut is a trip to the ‘burbs. But that is exactly what she has delivered. Wonders in the Suburbs is not just a story that happens to take place in the Parisian bedroom community of Montfermeil. It’s actually about the struggle to govern and reform such a township, to meet the needs of its ethnically diverse population, and to take seriously the inevitable dislocation that occurs when Parisians are either priced out of the city or have kids and feel the need to move from the center to the periphery. Balibar’s film isn’t about embracing “suburban values”—PTAs, teen football leagues, the thinly veiled racism of NIMBYist attitudes. It’s about changes that make leave urban / suburban divisions blurry and hard to define.

The English title of Merveilles à Montfermeil, Wonders in the Suburbs, is accurate, although it perhaps loses something since it correctly assumes that a non-Parisian audience would not recognize Montfermeil as a suburb. Historically, it is most notable as a setting in Les Misérables, a joke that reappears throughout the film. There’s always a trade-off when an artist makes a specific location so central to his or her art, since it will resonate so deeply with some, while representing a layer of meaning largely inaccessible to others. One could liken Merveilles à Montfermeil, in concept, to, say, Wonders of Flushing, Queens, or The Miracles of San Bernadino, but that only nicks the surface of the humor—its ironic discrepancy—and doesn’t at all address what makes a given location special.

Balibar is also a highly unique individual. While she is certainly one of the major French actresses of her era, she has made her reputation almost entirely on idiosyncratic auteur projects. An examination of her filmography reveals a systematic concern with theatrical forms, as well as a tendency toward deviations from naturalism, although this often manifests in subtle ways. Balibar has continually worked with filmmakers who hold their narrative material at a certain distance, whether through explicit engagement with the problem of performance (Rivette, Desplechin), temporal dislocation and memory (Ruiz, Assayas, Civeyrac), or the continuity of character (Bonello, Honoré, Amalric).

But if one thing unites all of these directors, it is an interest in generating distinctive moods and atmospheres, such that even otherwise ordinary narrative events—marital infidelity, family crises, et cetera—assume strange, uncanny shapes. This can be accomplished through performance, of course, but also pacing, juxtaposition, and an attenuated sense of cause and effect. The filmmaker who may best exemplify this tone of the uncanny is Jean-Claude Biette. Balibar worked with Biette in 2003 with Saltimbank, and Wonders in the Suburbs probably resembles Saltimbank more than any other Balibar film, given that both appear to be comedies of bureaucracy that are complicated by psychological road hazards. The cut-and-dried logic of city management (in Wonders), like that of high finance (in Saltimbank), is crisscrossed with both personal investments and neuroses.

The heart of Wonders in the Suburbs is a comedy of remarriage, grafted onto a tale of liberal civic reform. Through a degree of Desplechinian juggling, neither of these elements exactly slips into B-plot status. Balibar the writer-director keeps multiple narrative strands in play at all times, using the mayoral cabinet as the hub from which the various character strands radiate. We begin in a judge’s chambers, as Kamel Mrabti (Ramzy Bedia) and his wife Joëlle (Balibar) are finalizing an acrimonious divorce. As we will see, this split is complicated, not only because the couple has two young children, but they both work for the city of Montfermeil, specifically the administration of recently-elected, reform minded mayor Emannuelle Joly (Emmannuelle Béart). The conflict is exacerbated by the fact that Joëlle is a “free spirit” of sorts, focused on meditation for townspeople, while Kamel works on the nuts-and-bolts bureaucracy of housing and employment.

Despite the light touch of Wonders in the Suburbs, Balibar’s film is not without a covert politics. We don’t often see Jeanne Balibar’s career considered in light of the work of her father, the Marxist philosopher Étienne Balibar. This may be appropriate. There’s no guarantee that the comparison would be particularly enlightening. However, while looking over my dog-eared copy of Reading Capital, I found this passage in the final chapter: "Periods of transition are therefore characterized by the coexistence of several modes of production, as well as by these forms of non-correspondence. […] Thus it seems that the dislocation between the connections and instances in transition periods merely reflects the coexistence of two (or more) modes of production in a single ‘simultaneity.’"

Although Balibar pére is here referring to the means of production, we can presumably apply the same logic to what his co-author Althusser called the “ideological state apparatuses.” And one of these would be local governance, the most direct attempts at statecraft. Part of the engine that drives Wonders in the Suburbs is the resistance to liberal reform. Some of this resistance is entirely logical, since Balibar’s film shows it to exist at mere surface level. Gestures such as “Kilt Day” and “Brioche Day” reflect the hopelessly ineffectual efforts by neoliberalism and identity politics to “celebrate difference,” while retaining the basic structures of inequality. We see skepticism among the citizens toward these initiatives by the Joly administration.

But there are structural changes as well, and these are received with somewhat less skepticism. Changes to Kamel’s employment office are met approvingly. And though housing secretary Benoît Survenant (Mathieu Amalric) is welcomed into the homes of local immigrant families with initial suspicion, it eventually becomes clear that he is not trying to remove undocumented people or catch people out in housing violations. Rather, his intention is to find out what happened to those who were driven out by the previous, right-wing mayoralty, and try to invite them back. This is partly due to economic need, since non-French speakers are required to staff the new Language Academy, the biggest and most ambitious of Joly’s initiatives. Whereas one would assume such a school would serve to teach French to immigrants, its charge, in fact, is to teach all the area’s languages to citizens of Montfermeil, to foster a deeper sense of community.

As one might expect, there are forces both inside and outside the Joly government that are trying to thwart her efforts. The mayor discovers that two of her trusted deputies are in cahoots with developers who are planning to evict hundreds of residents to make way for a giant highrise. One of the aspects of Wonders in the Suburbs that lends it its awkward whimsy—we might call it an “audacity of hope”—is the fact that Mayor Joly somehow never saw this coming. In the age of neoliberal capital, her naivety is bizarre, and her reaction to the betrayal is more of a piece with the melodramatic cinema of deflated romantic desire, rather than of ambitions unrealized. This is part of that dissonant Biettian tone again, I’d argue. Taken at face value, Joly’s extreme actions make no sense. But if we postulate that Balibar is proposing a kind of “romance of the civic,” this slippage can be interpreted more generously. After all, if the radical move proposed by both Althusser and by Balibar’s father was the introduction of psychoanalysis into Marxism—the “engine of History” with an Unconscious—then why shouldn’t the State be a legitimate object of desire?

The disrupted relationship between Joëlle and Kamel is repaired at the end of Wonders in the Suburbs, after a fashion. One of the background refrains throughout the film pertains to both parties developing intense new relationships with online animal avatars they have each met on Second Life. The final scene of the film coincides with a planned IRL meeting that each of them will have with their new paramours, and Balibar telegraphs the inevitable conclusion to this meeting from the get-go. (Think “Pina Colada Song.”) But this set-up allows Balibar to layer two thematically relevant jokes atop one another, like a positive atop a negative. These technocrats, the meditation guru and the social worker, can only relate to those closest to them through the mediation of the Internet. At the same time, their commitment to helping the people of Montfermeil overcome their alienation is genuine. They are not hypocrites, and the film is not laughing at them. They are just locked in the same terministic grid as those they wish to help.

This is a film that eventually brings politicians, city managers, bureaucrats, immigrants, kids, parents, artists, young adults, seniors, and all manner of Montfermeil citizens together in a big concluding dance party, where tensions and disagreements seem to evaporate in a hypothetical suburban carnivale, a municipal utopia generated by sheer will to overcome the forces of division. But Balibar’s film pulls back a bit from this unbridled optimism. Wonders’ final moments seem to propose a ghostly resolution, as if matters such as these can only be so fully resolved on the spiritual (or the artistic) plane.

There are two figures in Wonders in the Suburbs whose function is ambiguous. One is a man in a dark suit, with a hat and cane, who resembles a religious figure. The other is an older woman in a Chicago Bulls jacket. They appear outside of the windows of couples making love, and they are seen in the final shot of the film, when Kamel and Joëlle have embraced in reconciliation. They could be “spirits” of Montfermeil, having lived in this town much longer than any of the principals and bearing wisdom those planners and schemers lack. They could be internal spectators, watching the goings-on from a wry distance. Or, then again, they might be all of these things at once. But the seem to signal a kind of magical force, a warning that reform and reconciliation will not be as easy as we or Balibar would like them to be. If Montfermeil is indeed a place of wonders, then its own history is inextricable from the romantic foibles of Balibar’s characters, and their private desires are intimately connected to a passion for the public good. 

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