Oh Mercy! (Roubaix, une Lumière)            French Film Festival

The deprived post-industrial town of Roubaix, situated on the outskirts of Lille in the north of France, is the setting for this 2019 crime drama from director Arnaud Desplechin. Inspired by a 2008 TV documentary entitled Roubaix, commissariat central, the film opens at Christmas time when it is the result of arson that lights some of the town’s streets rather than its festive lights.

A string of other crimes rapidly come to  the attention of the police including the rape of an underage girl in the metro; a missing young woman and a man claiming to have been set alight by a man wearing a turban. Heading up this catalogue of crime that culminates in the murder of an old woman following a robbery, is Commissaire Yacoub Daoud played by Roschdy Zem who fittingly won both a César and Lumières award for best actor in the role. Daoud, a non-gambler with a love of racehorses, is a single man of Algerian origin who has lived in the town all his life, remaining while his family, apart from a nephew in the jail who refuses to speak to him, returned to Algiers. He is calm beyond belief in the face of the extent of chaos around him and uses his acute instincts along with his patient interviewing techniques to get to the root of unsolved crime.

The struggle of ordinary Arabs in France and Belgium and the ugly face of racism are quietly shown across the film through memories and stories of Daoud’s childhood and youth.

A fresh recruit from out of town, Lieutenant Louis Cotterel, played by Antoine Reinartz, shows glimpses of his private fears as he starts to discover the complicated lives of people living in poor conditions as he is taken under Daoud’s wing.

In the course of investigating the murder, they again knock the door of two neighbours of the old woman. The pair, caught convincingly by both Léa Seydoux who revisits Roubaix in quite a different role from Blue is the Warmest Colour, but as the equally dominant Claude, and Sara Forestier as the more vulnerable and dependant Marie. This time round they are arrested, with the dynamics of the women being skilfully and accurately sensed by Daoud as his mild but firm manner teases out the truth. Roschdy Zem’s unphased interpretation of the role a delight to watch throughout.

The film retains something of a documentary feel with police re-enactments of crime scenes to ascertain veracity, as seen in the likes of les Engrenages, but otherwise strange to UK viewers, with the sounds from Grégoire Hetzel’s music giving subtle tension to the fictional drama.

The film’s title may make as little sense in French – Roubaix la Lumière (Roubaix the light) – as does the English translation of Oh Mercy! but this unconventional crime drama, that was nominated for multiple awards in 2020, has the capacity to absorb from the start as it looks starkly at the complexities of the human condition.

Irene Brown

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