Promises (Les Promesses) (12)         French Film Festival

This year’s FFF has got off to a wonderful and enthralling start, and this subtle look at politics both local and national maintains the standard.

Blessed with two outstanding performances from Isabelle Huppert as Clemence, mayor of a struggling Paris suburb and Reda Kateb as Yazid, her chief of staff, Thomas Kruithof’s film takes a lingering, and almost dispassionate look at the steps that need to be taken, and the choices that must be made while the machinery of politics whirls unstoppably onwards.

We meet Clemence as she prepares to stand down in favour of her deputy at the imminent election, having served the two terms she set out to complete. Wishing to go out on a high, she hopes her legacy will be a multi-million euro government grant to upgrade slum housing in an estate where many properties are rented from slum landlords and in a state of disrepair that renders them dangerous. Shades of Grenfell here.

At one point Clemence’s son points out to her that she has made no plans for retirement, a situation that seems not to trouble her. Until a suggestion from someone close to the prime minister suggests she could be offered a ministerial post. This both attracts and distracts her, and it is made clear she would have to ditch her social conscience, and devote her energies to working for the PM, rather than putting her voters first. “With more power comes less freedom.” To which some of us might say “If only…”

When this post falls through, Clemence is left with the realisation that she was not only working for her constituents, but for herself, too. Unable to bear the thought of leaving without having achieved her major goal of saving the run down estate, she shocks her deputy Naidra (Naidra Ayadi) and Yazid by announcing her intention of standing for a third term. A move that outrages her party, as the split vote between her and Naidra will hand victory to the opposition.

Meanwhile Yazid – who grew up in the estate in question, and so has a personal interest in securing the grant – has been hard at work meeting with residents. He and Clemence had, while trying to convince them not to withhold rent payments to the landlord, made them promises they knew could not be kept.

Up to this point, the camera has been mostly an observer of the various strands of the story, but now the tension builds as Clemence and Yazid try to beat the deadline to get the grant they need. Will they succeed? Will Clemence back down and give Naidra a free run for mayor? Will there be a happy ending for the residents of the estate?

Well, you won’t find that out from me, I suggest you go and see Promises and find out for yourselves.

Jim Welsh

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