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Film Review: Promises (Les Promesses)

Updated: Nov 15, 2021

You can't have a French film festival without the requisite Isabelle Huppert entry, and this year's 29th instalment of the French Film Festival UK is no exception. Once again the grande dame of French cinema dazzles in her role as Clemence Collombet, a principled mayor who has served her time in a difficult outer suburb of Paris. Facing the end of her second term after almost twelve years in office, and preparing to hand over the reins to her faithful deputy, Naidra (Naidra Ayadi), she launches one last ditch attempt to renovate the worn-out Les Bernardins estate before her time is up. Naturally there's a lot of opposition to this kind of development - both from within and without - and it's going to take some clever political manoeuvring to see things through.

In many ways, Promises feels like a taut political thriller. Not in the Hollywood way of deep conspiracies and secret societies assailing our protagonist, but in the very real sense of a literal countdown leading to a climactic race against time. As the election approaches - where she is to endorse and support her deputy's campaign - and a crucial funding meeting between the Prime Minister and his regional advisors looms, Clemence must work all the angles to ensure Les Bernardins gets the funding it needs. Of course, she can't do it alone, and that's where her Chief of Staff, Yazid Jabbi, comes in.

Just as Clemence needs the support of her faithful Chief of Staff, Huppert also needs support to carry the film - and Reda Kateb (as Yazid) delivers on both counts. It's hard to imagine anyone could be Huppert's equal on-screen, but Kateb puts in a valiant effort as the local boy who has worked himself up to a position of power and influence within his community. Mocked for his flash suits and fancy shoes, he still maintains grassroots connections among the people, and he understands what motivates them. As he explains to one opponent: "Too many people in France think squalid housing is linked to flat-screen TVs. Few people see that, for the poor, a nice screen is a way to keep the kids at home."

Things start to go awry when Clemence is offered the potential to join the Prime Minster's cabinet. With her son leaving home and her mayoral term coming to an end, she was prepared to walk away from it all, but this new opportunity awakens an ambition that had been laying dormant for too long. It causes her to take risks, push boundaries, and yes - make promises. But when the offer is withdrawn without explanation, Clemence finds herself on a dangerous path, and sees no other outlet for her ambition than to run for mayor again. This is when she starts breaking promises - first to her deputy and those closest to her - and it begins to look more and more unlikely that she will come through for the residents of Les Bernardins. She acknowledges her failings in a short speech to Naidra when her deputy asks if she's too young: "That's part of it. But you'll change. You'll have to. You'll use the best and worst in you. You chose this life, Naidra."

The situation is further complicated by the head of the Tenants' Association (Jean-Paul Bordes) who no longer trusts or believes her word, and a local slum lord (Soufiane Guerrab) who is determined to expose her shortcomings and ensure the estate remains in its current squalor. This is another stand-out performance from Guerrab, who first came to my attention as the suspicious police officer in Netflix and Gaumont's reimagining of Lupin with Omar Sy. You can feel the tension between the struggling residents who bought into this estate long ago, and the people who live there cheaply while crammed into small dwellings, and it reminds me a lot of the tensions I've witnessed on housing estates across London.

In the end, everyone has their own agenda, including Clemence's superiors, and the film excels in the way it peels back these various layers to expose what lies beneath. I wasn't familiar with director Thomas Kruithof (who co-wrote the film with Jean-Baptiste Delafon) but then it's only his second feature after The Eavesdropper (La mécanique de l'ombre) which was more of a traditional political thriller in the aforementioned Hollywood style. Looking at his other work on the short film Undocumented (Retention) - about a detention centre worker who tries to help one of the immigrants in her care - you can see how Promises is the natural outflow of the two.

As with all of her films, Huppert has a way of transcending her role while still seeming completely at home and grounded within it - whether she's an unsuspecting drug baron (as seen in last year's Mama Weed) or a suburban mayor on the verge of obsolescence. You can see it in her walk at the start of the film, and in the way she works the room at her mayoral functions. I would imagine it's the same way Huppert works a red carpet or film premiere, and this reputation for always being 'on' was so cleverly parodied in her appearance on Call My Agent! It takes a special kind of actor to keep up with that and to hold their own, which is why I'm so impressed by Kateb's understated performance. Ultimately, he provides the beating heart of the film, and goes above and beyond to keep Clemence on track while trying to deliver on the many promises that have been made.

I've already said a lot, but I don't think any of that has spoiled the film, and I would recommend seeing Promises for yourself. Its view of the Paris suburbs provides a glimpse beyond the central Arrondissements frequented by tourists, and for that I'm truly grateful. In the same way that London isn't just Buckingham Palace, The West End or the River Thames, Paris is a complex city with its own unique problems and structures. As always, I'll remain glued to Isabelle Huppert's future performances, but I'll also be keeping an eye out for Reda Kateb, Soufiane Guerrab, and Thomas Kruithof.


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