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Games of Love and Chance

by Shari L. Rosenblum

“The natural, the real, that of the theater, is the least natural thing in the world […] Do not believe that it is enough just to capture life's tonalities. For one thing, in life the text is always so bad! We live in a world that has completely lost track of the semicolon, we speak in incomplete sentences, with three little dots of ellipsis understood, because we never find the right word . . . Life is beautiful, but it has no form. Art has as its task precisely that, to give it one, and to create something, from all possible artifice – more real than the real.” Translated from La Répétition ou l'amour puni, by Jean Anouilh (on rehearsing a play by Marivaux).

The observations that become the story in Abdellatif Kechiche's second film, The Games of Love and Chance, a slice of teen life Maghrebin-style set in the housing projects of a Parisian suburb, echo observations from a Paris centuries old. In his first full-length feature, Faute à Voltaire, about a Tunisian immigrant's experiences , the actor-turned director/screenwriter harkened back to the philosopher Voltaire's Enlightenment ideals as ironically spit back (with a now famous grammatical error) long after the fact, resolution still not certain, by the young Gavroche in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables . Digging in again quietly to the literature of another era to fix his very current perspective in the historical lineage of artistic insight and the waves of revolution, he turns this time to the works of Voltaire's contemporary, Marivaux.

During the reign that preceded the reign that gave way to the storming of the Bastille, the playwright Pierre de Marivaux breathed life and complexity into characters who previously had served mostly as the theater's foils and as props: the maids and manservants. The underclass. With a comedic flourish for the truths revealed through disguise and deception, his plots took the familiar characters of the comic stage and turned them inside out. He inverted valet and master, servant and mistress, to get to the literal heart of the matter. Issues of station and individual worth were brought into dramatic question, cast in the vagaries of love. It was a subversive move, the subversion of which was mostly overlooked. Perspicacity . . . audacity . . . clothed in the poetics of banter; they even had a name for it: marivaudages— the precious subtleties, formalities, hiccups and tics of language that pass between us when we want to say more, show less. And so his oeuvre raised no lightning bolt, incited no political uproar. The plays played as trivialities, comic inventions, mere theatrical trifles. (“These people do not know the consequence of a word,” one of his characters prophetically tells another). But Kechiche, sharply aware of the political disquiet that filters through those games of nearly 300 years past, adopted and adapted it for his homage to Marivaux's thematics.

In an HLM (public housing) on the outskirts of the city , fifteen-year-old Abdelkrim (Osman Elkharraz), “Krimo” à la française, is a handsome moody brooding type adrift in the life between cool and calamitous. Quarreling with one girlfriend over his teenaged indifference (“I'm not your slut,” she scolds him), he stumbles upon a new fascination: a pretty blonde in the fancy dress of an 18 th century lady haggling pitilessly in truculent French with the Asian tailor who did not make the flounce quite the length that she wanted. Lydia (Sara Forestier) is dressed for rehearsal of the play the class is putting on (Marivaux's eponymous work) , and though Krimo's known her all his life, he is suddenly struck by love—stammering, monosyllabic, helpless love. While his “homies”—and hers—preen and posture toughness in the high-rise tenements of the low-cast banlieue , he dreams half-way between sullen and moon-eyed of sailboats and romance and she splits herself between the macho-girl pretenses of the projects and the fine demoiselle fantasy of the play.

Despite the English title, Games of Love and Chance is not a re-rendering of Marivaux's best-known work of social subterfuge and seduction. Using the 18 th century comedy as his centerpiece, staging the incisive play-within-a-play within a film of similar intent, Kechiche eschews imitation of the playwright's gamesmanship in favor of elaborating upon it. The French title, which translates into an evasion of sorts, hints less at the spectacle than at the characters' sense of things (the duck, the dodge, the feint in the allegorical fencing match that is teen living). Kechiche has his young players, mostly non-professionals, engage the linguistic and theatrical artifice of the long-lived master play, commenting directly and indirectly on the playwright's own implicit commentary so as to highlight the hyper-real comedy of errors that is teen drama in the HLM . Rehearsals of the comedy, with its mannered tones and gestures, unfold beside and around the schoolyard antics.

Co-written with Ghalya Lacroix, Games of Love and Chance resounds with its own adapted marivaudages. Not quite as formal, but equally stylized, the words in his film come out in torrents, perceptions and threats superimposed upon each other, vulgarity upon argot, verlan (the French slang in which syllables are reversed) upon gallicized Arabic, mini heresies upon inch'Allahs . All underclass now (save random figures of authority: a supportive teacher, antagonistic police), his players rely upon language no less than Marivaux's. Their story is one of fiction, of carefully crafted ideas, but their effectively outer-city patois is so specific, so particular to its place and time (“you don't say that anymore,” a teacher swallows the words to herself after offering up a slang phrase fallen by the wayside), so possessed by its speakers, that hearing it as we do from the mouths of non-professionals, captured in close-up after hand-held close-up, it feels as if we have entered into a documentary. Watching the subtitles gather on the screen, we imagine a trauma in the task of the translator (who does a good job of it) not to betray this reality—to get across both the words and their sense without over- or underemphasis—not to betray these characters. Et speciale dedicace au petit Robert.

We are in the familiar territory of such as Matthieu Kassovitz's La Haine , a fine and moving film in its own right, but Kechiche is onto a different mood. His avoidance of drugs, veils and the arranged marriages of North African custom is deliberate. Rather than frame his film by the debates currently raging in France , he went for something closer in spirit to Peter Sollett's Raising Victor Vargas. Soft focus on a world awash in harsh light ( "In this world, you must be a bit too kind in order to be kind enough," Marivaux wrote) . There is no distance from the characters being put through their paces here; they are portrayed sympathetically, with a tenderness in the portrayal of their cluelessness and aspirations that makes your heart ache. Forestier (who won the the César for Best Female Newcomer) is a fiery presence. Persuasively vociferous against tailors and young suitors, her Lydia falls back and just as believably lets her friends speak on her behalf when it comes to confrontations with Magali. She wears her costume far more often than she needs to and, like the servant Lisette of Malraux's play, slips into the grand tones of her dramatic alter ego with a determined ferocity. Krimo, on the other hand, seems so pent up that he can barely emote in life or on stage; his attempts at playing Arlequin (Lisette's counterpart and a staple of the commedia dell'arte from which Marivaux was inspired) are affecting for the very ease with which the actor (also nominated for a César ) portrays an inability to act.

The smaller roles around them are no less interesting. In addition to Magali, who can both mope and threaten with terrifying accuracy, there is Frida (Sabrina Ouazani, nominated beside Forestier for the César ), the angriest and the most vulnerable of the lot, a powerful presence who recognizes her real-life displacement by Krimo and her theatrical one by Lydia, Nanou (Nanou Benhamou), protector, philosopher and instigator familiar to anyone who's ever been a teen, Rachid (Rachid Hami) who embodies the Harlequin essence, and Fathi (Hafet Ben-Ahmed), Krimo's closest friend, who brims with both the gentleness of boyhood consolations and the dangerousness of a youth raised in an environment of petty criminality and matter-of-fact prison. It is he who (and perhaps with great intentionality) speaks with an accent most revealing of its Arabic infusions.

At the 2005 French awards, Games of Love and Chance had as competition The Chorus, A Very Long Engagement, and Kings and Queens, among others. In addition to the acting awards and nominations it garnered, it was handed the César for best screenplay and the César for best film, and Kechiche was named best director.

©2005 Shari L. Rosenblum