An astonishing debut for 23-year-old director Audrey Estrougo, Aint Scared chronicles one day in the emotional life of a Parisian housing project. Its focus is a group of young people, each...
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An astonishing debut for 23-year-old director Audrey Estrougo, Aint Scared chronicles one day in the emotional life of a Parisian housing project. Its focus is a group of young people, each of whom tries in his own way to express deep feelings for someone else while simultaneously maintaining the hard emotional shells needed to survive in these mean streets
Dangers of the "Cité" for a girl in a vivid but diffuse first feature
Like Mathieu Kassovitz's 1995 La haine and Abdel Kechiche's multiple-César-winning 2003/5 L'Esquive, this is a fiction feature about young inhabitants of the troubled Paris peripheral urban ghettos known as "la Cité" or "la Banlieue." Director Estrougo, for whom this is a first fiction feature, moved from the Marais quarter of Paris to the Banlieu at thirteen when her mother remarried and lived there for four years, and declares she has been digesting the experience ever since (she's only 23 or 24). Less interesting or appealing in plot or character terms than those earlier films, Ain't Scared/Regarde moi is arguably more sensitive as a "choral" or "ethnographic" portrait of the multi-ethnic, multi-racial adolescent boys and girls of the milieu, and particularly for its focus on the difficulties of being female in this urban-suburban jungle. The film deals with the two sexes schematically by being divided into two halves, both traversing approximately the same twenty-four-hour period; but while desultory and superficial at first, it achieves some depth at the end by zeroing in on two of the young women.
In the first half the males dominate. Yannick (Paco Boublard) is a jumpy, people-pleasing white boy involved in petty crime and on a mission to win back his black girlfriend, the beautiful Melissa (Djena Tsimba). He's pals with the athletic black guy Jo (Terry Nimajimbe), who's got a golden ticket out of the ghetto: he's been tapped by London's Arsenal football team. Yannik pals around with Jo's younger brother, Khalidou ((Jimmy Woha Woha), who's Jo's responsibility, there being no parents in evidence. Except for Jo, it's a given that most of the boys are stuck, but their constant concerns are impressing each other, working their little deals, and above all losing their virginity (the word "virgin" is a as bad a put-down as "fag"). Seduction was as central in L'Esquive as violence was in La haine. Here again it has somewhat the upper hand. In fact the movie begins with Mouss (Oumar Diaw), who's black, practicing in the mirror the rap he'll use to score with Daphne (Salome Stevenin), who's white. The girls are hard to get because they're afraid; there's not much of a comfort zone for anybody in this world. Paradoxically, perhaps, or simply because this is essentially a girl's story, the most violence we see is girls-on-girls.
The first half identifies the main girls in this loosely defined group, but the focus is always on the boy's concerns: getting a girl, gaining recognition among the guys. Though there's plenty of reference to race, the races intermingle freely. In fact every couple is mixed-race, and there's one Asian who seems completely at home with the rest of the boys.
Then, without anything particular happening, the focus shifts to the girls. In one scene they gather together to shout their hatreds and beefs at the camera: it's almost like a musical. The image of these girls shifts to black and white for a minute, as if to signal the starkness of the issues. It is a given that a girl who uses makeup or jeans is taken for a prostitute. All must protect themselves by downplaying their femininity, and sweat pants and "baskets" (running shoes) are their uniform.
Finally the focus is on just two girls, Julie (Emilie De Preissac), a white girl with an alcoholic father who's involved with Jo, though for most of the film she seems to be avoiding him; and the black Fatimata (Eye Haidara), whose still-traditional African mother can't possibly understand the grief she comes to when she goes out wearing a blonde wig. There are only the two parents visible. Fatimata's mom only smacks her. and Julie's dad is forever comatose in front of the telly. When she's been battered, she can only snuggle up to his inert body. It's the saddest and most moving image of the film. Both of these girls come in for beatings by other girls, Julie's the more severe (and so is her reaction). It's not always clear what'd going on. Americans may be lucky to have subtitles. Some avowedly "middle-class" French viewers of Ain't Scared have complained that the fast talk and Banlieue slang are so hard to follow they too need subtitles.
In an interview Estrougo says she initially chose the would-be cast members who had the most interesting personal stories, without screen tests. No doubt about the fluidity and conviction of the action and the authenticity of the settings. The scenes flow with so much good humor and speed, especially among the boys, that at times Ain't Scared, despite its ostensibly tough subject matter, can be a joy to watch. It has its occasional longeurs, but it doesn't harangue you like La haine. If you pay attention, there's also a lot of information here. Mulitple viewings might be necessary to grasp everything; unfortunately there aren't the usual dramatic "hooks" or catharsis that motivate repeats, and the appearance of superficiality (very much a valid representation of how adolescents communicate).
This film lacks the shock value of La haine or the charm of L'Escquive and it has not and will not do anywhere near as well as they (it gained some recognition, but not a lot of praise from French critics). The final resolution, though efficient, is a little bit feeble. Maybe Estrougo will do something that concentrates message and effect better next time; she does know her chosen milieu, and works brilliantly with non-actors.
Opened September 26, 2007 in Paris. Shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, New York, February 29-March 9, 2008.
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