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Promises (Les Promesses)

Director - Thomas Kruithof - 2021

"Greasy movie"
Opening the Orizzonti sidebar of the Venice Film Festival, Thomas Kruithof’s Les Promesses stars Isabelle Huppert as a politician who decides to break her promise


Promises are the manure politics must spread to get anything to grow. All politicians must make promises in order to get elected. And they must be unrealistic and unrealisable. We don’t elect people unless they’re going to drain the swamp or promise a better future they largely have no control over. The idea that these promises are to be believed is one of those necessary lies that we are all culpable of sustaining.

Clemence (Huppert) is the mayor of a small French town close to Paris. A housing estate is in dire need of regeneration but it is also a hive of slum landlords and failing services. A potential deal which would see millions of euros invested in the neighbourhood stalls because tenants are refusing to pay the extortionate fees being charged by the building supervisor. Somehow Clemence and her trusted chief of staff Yazid (Reda Kateb) must persuade the residents to pay the arrears and to trust them that in doing so they will finally – after many years of promises – see their lives changed and improved in a substantial way.

Unfortunately, Clemence is distracted by the possibility that her political career might improve dramatically – she is being wooed for a ministerial post – or disappear, if she makes good on her promises not to run for re-election. The slack is taken up by Yazid who has a personal stake in the issue: he once lived in the buildings and made his way up the party apparatus through his smarts.

Kruithof and his fellow screenwriter Jean-Baptiste Delafon have crafted a clever and intriguing political drama. The details are paid close attention to and the portrait of the town takes in politics from many levels. From the activist resident complaining about a burst pipe up to the masters of the universe of Elysses whose attention occasionally strobes across the ordinary lives of the people whose policies they touch. There are surprises along the way. The slum landlord far from being an evil criminal is actually a kindly vet, he has his own factotum who is pressuring the politicians in a way that looks similar to Yazid’s somewhat cynical tactics. The performances are all superb. Huppert has an effortless aloofness that is all too credibly enrapturing when expressed as charisma. She is a politician who cares, without actually caring. I’d vote for her.

But it’s actually Reda Kateb’s film. He is the backroom negotiator who finds himself discovering a cause late in the day and putting himself to work with the desperate fervor of a man in search of some kind of redemption. It is the kind of liberal heartwarming idea – politics actually working for once – that has appeared many times, from Frank Capra to The West Wing, but here it feels credible. However, there is no sign of the gillet jaunes and the current political turmoil that is gripping France and indeed Europe. Les Promesses is ultimately a sedate fairytale, proffering the idea that occasionally when the stars align and individuals have crises of conscience the state turns up to save the day. Somehow, it feels like times have gone beyond that.

Promises has just premiered at La Biennale di Venezia.

"Greasy movie"

By John Bleasdale - 01-09-2021

By John Bleasdale - 01-09-2021

John Bleasdale is a film critic and writer...

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