In a high rise neighborhood on the outskirts of Paris, a group of young, mostly Muslim teenagers rehearse an 18th century play by Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux (who also wrote "The Triumph of Love," recently made into a film starring Mira Sorvino) for school, but the real drama is in their own lives as they play "The Game of Love and Chance."
There was a wave of American Shakespearean ("Ten Things I Hate About You," "O") adaptations for teens a fews years back, but none of them took the 'play within a play' approach the French are so fond of (Rivette's "Va Savoir," "As If Nothing Happened" to name two). "The Game of Love and Chance" (the play's title is being used for the US release - the original French title, "L'Esquive," translates more literally as "The Evasions") revolves around Krimo (Osman Elkharraz), a young man recently dumped by his long time girlfriend Magalie (Aurélie Ganito) in a bid for attention, who instead sets his sites on the blond neighborhood diva, Lydia (Sara Forestier, in an amazing performance which won her a Most Promising Actress Cesar).
Krimo is manipulated by everyone around him, but Lydia is a master. He comes across her haggling over her already completed costume in time to be hit up for ten Euros (the tailer disgustedly accepts 50 Euros in the hand rather than the 70 that had been agreed upon). Lydia, who clearly is attracted to Krimo, drags him along to an outdoor rehearsal, where she encounters the wrath of Frida (Sabrina Ouazani) for being late and bringing along an outsider (and, more likely, jealous of Lydia's new costume). Krimo is hooked, however, and asks Rachid (Rachid Hami) if he can take his place wooing Lydia in the play. Lydia tries to coach (direct might be a better word) Krimo in a private session, but he pounces instead. Lydia, however will not commit and is accused by Magalie of stealing her man ('I'll whack you, you bitch!'). The class teacher (Carole Franck) is frustrated beyond words by Krimo's lack of talent ('Aren't you having FUN!?'). Krimo's best friend Fathi (Hafet Ben-Ahmed) steps in behind his back, bullying Frida and taking her cell phone until she can orchestrate a meeting with Lydia in which Lydia will tell Krimo if she will go out with him or not. The climatic meeting has no resolution when the kids are aggressively shaken down by the cops. The play goes on with Rachid in his original role.
Cowriter (with Ghalia Lacroix)/director Abdel Kechiche's film won four Cesars, including Best Film, Director and Screenplay, beating out the higher profile "Rois et Reine." This gritty yet humorous teen drama expertly evokes these kids' world, where a cell phone is an all important possession, hip hop slang the language of the day and the couplings of their own the main topic of conversation. The play itself, which concerns a lady and her maid swapping places in a bid for love yet falling for their own class is reflected in Lydia's hesitance in hooking up with Krimo and her ultimate repairing with Rachid, who can act.
Kechiche has achieved wonderful performances from his large ensemble. Forestier is clearly a rising star. She creates in Lydia a girl used to being the center of attention and directing those around her, the type whose girlfriends criticize her audacity behind her back yet gravitate to her nonetheless. Osman Elkharraz is a sympathetic foil and gets at the heart of a typical boy's stumbling social skills and macho rejection of dramatics. Hafet Ben-Ahmed makes Fathi an every loyal, if confounding friend. Nanou Benhamou has strong presence as Nanou, a female observer of the action who almost acts like the girls' elder. Sabrina Ouazani, nominated along with Forestier for Most Promising Actress, makes Frida a bitchy complainer whose transformation on the stage is notable.
The film has the realistic feel of a documentary, particularly when Kechiche steps back for his film's final act. The filmmaker steps away from the individuals and becomes a recorder of the performance of the play and its backstage drama. Nothing works out as we'd expect, "The Game of Love and Chance" indeed being a crapshoot.
French teen movies set in the mean suburbs of Paris are usually given harsh depiction, as in Mathieu Kassovitz’s “La Haine (1995).” It’s refreshing to see a film in this setting that doesn’t portray violence and anger but, instead, shows passion for artistic and emotional expression in its youthful characters.
L’Esquive” centers on Krimo (Osman Elkharraz), a taciturn young man who is in the midst of yet another breakup with his longtime girlfriend, Magalie (Aurelie Ganito). They’ll get back together, as usual, except now Krimo has a distraction: Lydia (Sara Forestier).
Lydia is the Prima Donna diva in their school play and is growing into a beautiful young woman, something Krimo comes to notice now that he’s a single dude. The budding young actress has the femme lead in the 18th century play by French dramatist Marivaux, “Le Je de l’Amour st de Hasard (Games of Love and Chance)” and Krimo bribes his way to play opposite the lovely Lydia.
The microcosmic society in which these kids in the hood live has its own set of values and problems – loyalty, rivalry, aggression, violence, wonder, ambition are some of the varied elements that makes up their world.
The obviously mostly non-actors are able to convey their individual character’s traits simply but well. Krimo is quiet and unsure and has not an acting bone in his body. Lydia (Forestier being the only pro among the players and it shows) is self-assured, talented and takes her starring role very serious, indeed. The other kids in the cast rep various human natures simply but effectively. Magalie reps the stable home life for Krimo, she doesn’t have the glamour of Lydia but there is still a vivacity about her that holds tether on Krimo. Frida (Sabrina Ouazani), who vies for prima spot with Lydia, uses shrill, vulgar, non-stop yacking to hide her insecurities. Krimo’s friend and guardian angel, Fathi (Hafet Ben-Ahmed), sees through her relentless, loud patter and uses the threat of real violence to get answers from her.
Director Abdel Kechiche, who co-wrote the story with Gahlia Lacroix, gives a positive, even optimistic, spin on what is normally viewed with doom. Kechiche shows a world, however contrived, where kids are concerned with their futures, their friends and their passions. There isn’t a gun or illegal drug to be seen. This may be akin to having a gang in East LA carrying squirt guns but the positive messages of L’Esquive” make it worthwhile, especially for younger auds with a spirit of adventure to see something not created for the multiplex. Who knows, you might grow to appreciate subtitles. I give it a B.
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