Nicolas Klotz and Elisabeth Percival, long a favorite of Olivier Pere's at the Quinzaine, are now at Locarno, which Raya Martin last night aptly termed "Super Quinzaine." (I then chimed back, "Quinzaine on Steroids.") The cinema of Klotz, who handles the mise-en-scène of his films and co-writes the scripts with Percival, who directs the actors—not unlike the division of labors between the Coen brothers—divides audiences and critics for as far back as I was following the couple's cinema, to their brilliant La blessure (2004) the second in their La trilogie des temps moderne which started with Paria (2000) which I've never seen. Even though the trilogy's final film, La question humaine a.k.a. Heartbeat Detector was loved by many at its 2007 Quinzaine premiere, it split critics into factions, being viewed as everything from "dryly limp satire [that] ends as cruel and unusual punishment" (Slant's Ed Gonzalez) to the Guardian's Steve Rose admiring the film's "graceful telescoping of past into present and a steadily accumulating dread."
The same response appears to be even more the case with the new Klotz-Percival film, Low Life, slotted in Locarno's international competition, where it should be seriously considered a contender. One French colleague terms the film as "naïve" and it's entirely possible to accept that point and also take in Low Life as a fascinating study of thoughtful young people (mostly college students) in a collision course with the contemporary politics of undocumented immigration and exile in Europe.
Before it's done, Low Life actually blends certain aspects of both La blessure and its intimate observation of groups of African families facing the Damocles Sword of deportation with Heartbeat Detector's cool staging of human beings living inside a corporate bubble. The former comes through in earlier and middle sequences involving young African men, on the periphery of the students' agitation and a squatting movement in Lyon, facing deportation, crystallized in a deportation document pockmarked with cigarette burn holes, and last seen slowly burning on embers like charbroiled meat. The latter emerges in a surprising way late into the film, when the central figure of Carmen, a grad student who's fallen in love with an undocumented Afghan poet and fellow student named Hussain, is taken into police headquarters to explain some incriminating surveillance video that shows her protecting Hussain, a criminal offense. The headquarters is out of a science fiction dystopian film, a metallic tomb of electronics and Big Brother-ism, an even darker setting of power than anything in Heartbeat Detector.
But the film that Low Life most immediately recalls is Bertolucci's The Dreamers and its similar devotion to the private lives of young people caught up in a vague dream of revolution on the French urban streets. The difference, I would argue, is that The Dreamers really is basted and marinated in naïveté, while Low Life applies a supple balance between involvement and distance with its idealistic youth. The issues at hand are gray and undefined—far different from May '68—with the film's main characters pointedly not part of the squatters, who remain either unseen or on the edges of the film. The great concern of Low Life is exile, which here takes on various profiles from international to psychic, and Hussain eventually comes to embody all of them in probably the most dramatic and emotional sequences that Klotz and Percival have achieved, at least in their last three films. Carmen's fall for loving Hussain might very well have been a total collapse, an impossible romance of fertile literary minds whose lives meld books and bodies, but a final turn has Carmen literally vanishing into a tree-lined hideaway as if out of a fairy tale, followed by young Charles, her beautiful long-haired male friend who wants her but can't have her. There's something exceptionally romantic in some of the images Klotz has wrought, but leavened by a specific harshness and theatrical distance that turns Low Life into a fascinating plastic object about ideas, youth in metamorphosis and cities in crisis.