“Return to Bollène” is a rare fusion of societal analysis and personal experience, of the complex and agonized intertwining of private and public lives, domestic and civic forces.
The modern cinema is defined by writer-directors who find original ways of bringing words and images together. It’s also defined by modes of production, by the ways in which filmmakers derive personal approaches to the aesthetics of cinema from the practical methods that they adopt. These two tendencies meet in a new movie that, for now, will be screened only once, this Sunday, at the Museum of the Moving Image, but deserves wider attention: “Return to Bollène,” the first feature by the director Saïd Hamich, which revitalizes the familiar theme of the prodigal son’s homecoming.
Born in Morocco and raised in France, Hamich (who, as a teen-ager, lived in the town of the title) is a prominent young film producer in Paris who, to make “Return to Bollène,” avoided the conventional bureaucratic system of film financing in France, and made it with his own production company and his own funds. This enabled him to move very quickly from conception to completion, and that rapidity and spontaneity apparently energized Hamich’s artistry. “Return to Bollène” isn’t an aesthetically radical film, but it’s an ardently alert one, in which Hamich’s plain and seemingly handcrafted methods reveal personal observations and his own perceptual urgency.
It’s the story of a young man named Nassim (Anas El Baz), who is seen, at the start of the film, in a taxi, heading for the airport in Abu Dhabi. The driver speaks to him in Arabic; Nassim responds in English, then makes a call on his cell phone to arrange a romantic meeting in Paris. Once there, Nassim and his fiancée, Elisabeth (Kate Colebrook), travel by train to the South of France; he rents a car, and they drive to the small city of Bollène, which, from the start, is obviously in a state of political crisis: a billboard in the center of town declares, “One city, one identity”—and shows a child with a very white face and very blond hair.
Nassim is coming home, ostensibly, to visit his family for the first time in four years and to introduce them to Elisabeth—yet, in point of fact, he is there to flaunt his distance from them. He rejects his mother’s invitation to stay at her apartment; he and Elisabeth stay in a hotel, and he puts off the homecoming until the next day. The family lives in an apartment complex in a rundown neighborhood inhabited by people of color—and Hamich makes sure that these people are seen, in sequences featuring Nassim driving and walking in his former neighborhood.
Nassim works in finance and has entered the bourgeoisie; his family is on shakier economic footing. His elderly mother (Jamila Charik) doesn’t work; his older brother Mouss (Saïd Benchnafa) is unemployed and does some low-level drug dealing; his sister Hajjar (Bénédicte-Lala Ernoult) is struggling to get through law school, and is engaged to a man who has just been hired as a train conductor. Nassim makes a point of snarking at Hajjar’s Islamic faith (as moderate and secularized as it proves to be), of ordering wine in front of his mother (who wears a headscarf). He criticizes Mouss’s hypocrisy for drinking alcohol away from their mother’s view and scoffs at Mouss’s lack of initiative. In effect, Nassim shows up at his family’s home to deliver a random but unrelenting series of microaggressions in order to mark himself as different. And, though Nassim’s father, who is separated from his mother, remains a part of family life, Nassim considers him the abusive terror of his youth and makes a big show of refusing to see him under any circumstances.
Yet, as alienated as Nassim is, and wants to be, from his family, he’s no more at home in white, Christian France. The town is in the hands of a far-right party that’s controlled by Nassim’s former history teacher, a white man who was also his mentor (and with whom he has an accidental and tense reunion), and the discrimination against North African immigrants and their descendants is rampant and blatant. It’s the reason for Nassim’s departure from Bollène and from France, yet it’s also a crucial reason for Nassim’s separation from his family: in his quest for dignity and for success, he repudiates both the humiliations that he endured and those who continue to endure it. Meanwhile, Nassim is unable to integrate Elisabeth into his former life, despite her best intentions, any better than he reintegrates himself.
Hamich constructs the rounds of Nassim’s homecoming with fine and forceful skeins of dialogue. Language is at the forefront of the film—who speaks to whom in French, in Arabic, in English, is an emblematic aspect of the drama, and the cancellation by the local government of Nassim’s mother’s French lessons is an emblem of the exclusionary new local far-right politics. “Return to Bollène” is a film of debates, of arguments, of long-stifled conflicts that burst out, as if under pressure, in frank and quietly ferocious talk that the cast of actors delivers with finely pointed intensity.
“Return to Bollène” is filmed with a richly textured observational concentration that brings the cityscape to life along with the characters. Hamich lets the language of confrontation seemingly emboss his compositions, as if putting it into high relief, pushing out from the screen. The language of law, the language of politics, the language of family, the language of religion, and the language of culture (including an intimate yet spectacular scene in which Nassim meets a longtime friend, now a rapper, played by Achraff Benhoumane) are fused with the language of memory. Nassim’s highly cathected observations and encounters spark both warm reminiscences and destructive conflagrations from long-stifled emotions. “Return to Bollène” is a rare fusion of societal analysis and personal experience, of the complex and agonized intertwining of private and public lives, domestic and civic forces. Here, the conscious and the unconscious, the intentional and the incidental, the energizing force of provocation in the virtually theatrical conventions of homecoming infuse a small-scale drama with intricate depths and globe-spanning grandeur.