VENICE 2021: Thomas Kruithof, Isabelle Huppert and Reda Kateb launch themselves into the world of politics, at the crossroads between individual and collective interests, power games and social issues
“it’s never too late to keep a promise"
"So I’m honest but I tell lies?” – “An unkept promise isn’t a lie; it’s not a false promise and it’s definitely not a proper lie” – “Practically speaking, it’s a lie".
Immersing itself, fiction-style (though not lacking in a well-informed measure of realism), into the small world of political action as linked to the economic interests of a somewhat disadvantaged town on the Parisian outskirts, Promises by Thomas Kruithof - which opened the Orizzonti line-up of the 78th Venice Film Festival - follows the current French film trend of broaching topics associated with public governance (in different keys) where it comes in closest contact with the general populace (Alice and the Mayor, Wonders in the Suburbs).
It’s a highly modern tendency which chimes with the erosion of faith in political speech, with the problems endemic to the ghettoised and impoverished peripheries of the big metropolises and the means to remedy such issues, and which sits at the complex intersection of public willingness, individual wishes and the hunger for power.
All these themes and their many configurations (neighbourhood meetings, doorstepping within dilapidated buildings in the grip of slumlords, whose inhabitants can only despair, the highly reactive modification of persuasion strategies at municipal level, the dangling of ministerial posts by the government’s inner circle, negotiations with the high commissioner in charge of awarding extensive public contracts for renovating housing throughout the Ile-de-France region, power struggles within the different political parties, etc.) lend substance to Promises’ rich tale about a pair of complicit and seasoned politicians working at local level: the Mayor Clémence (Isabelle Huppert) and her principal private secretary Yazid (Reda Kateb).
The former, once a doctor, is reaching the end of her second term and plans to hand the reins over to her deputy Naidra (Naidra Ayadi) during the next election which is now on the horizon. The latter, hailing from a poorer local neighbourhood, hopes to broaden his horizons following the retirement “of his much-admired boss” by continuing his ascent within the capital.
The pair have one last challenge on their hands: to secure €63m in subsidies in order to save the Bernardins estate and its many thousands of dwellings. But the government (notably represented by Laurent Poitrenaux) isn’t convinced, because the tenants association (led by Jean-Paul Bordes) is at war with the insolvency administrator (a conflict whose flames are fanned by Sofiane Guerrab, because certain people hiding behind figureheads are profiting from the misery of others by cramming migrants into flats). At the same time, the fear of the emptiness that will come with the end of her career begins to take hold of Clémence and sees her caught between dangling the carrot of a ministerial role and the temptation to go back on her word…
Moving along at quite a pace to take in the various components of the plot, the different levels of the decision-making apparatus (the government, city hall, political parties and the people) and the varying atmospheres, all the while aiming for a certain sense of urgency, Promises deftly transposes a complicated subject into an engaging story.
Reda Kateb and Isabelle Huppert in Promises
It’s a pace which is nonetheless offset by a relative lack of depth when exploring the characters’ identities: Isabelle Huppert’s character mostly relies on the actress’s charisma, while Reda Kateb’s talents are shown in a decidedly sharper light. It’s a minor drawback which doesn’t detract from the pertinence of a film which intelligently dissects the day-to-day reality of political action (torn between power and freedom) and the issues at stake for everyone. Because “it’s never too late to keep a promise".
Produced by 24 25 Films in co-production with France 2 Cinéma, Wild Bunch and Les Films du Camélia, Promises is sold worldwide by Elle Driver.