L’Esquive (Games of Love and Chance) shocked audiences when it won the César for Best Film, but what were people reacting to exactly: the fact that Abdellatif Kechiche had made a better film than Les Choristes and A Very Long Engagement, or that L’Esquive was earning comparisons to a certain Larry Clark provocation? (“It plays out like the French Kids, without the poignancy,” wrote someone on IMDb.) The teens in the film—most of whom are North African and Muslim—live somewhere in the slums of Paris and their parents are conspicuous by their absence, which means they’re allowed to do just about anything they want with very little interference, and though the worst thing a kid does here is steal someone’s cellphone, L’Esquive scarcely starves for intensity.
Krimo (Osman Elkharraz) has broken up (again) with his girlfriend Magalie (Aurélie Ganito) and has set his sights on a lifelong friend, Lydia (Sara Forestier), who is playing the lead character in their high school class’s adaptation of Marivaux’s A Game of Love and Chance. An enigma wrapped in a riddle, Krimo bribes his friend Rachid (Rachid Hami) for his role in the play, just so he can act alongside Lydia, which perpetuates all sorts of melodramas, not least of which is the boy’s embarrassment in front of his classmates during a rehearsal. (Remember the fat kid from Bad Santa? Well, Krimo’s range is considerably more limited.)
These hysterically fickle teens seem to speak their own language (they’re always threatening to “waste” their “homies” and use weird clicking sounds as punctuation), and sometimes it’s difficult to tell when they’re acting out or simply acting. Epic stretches of the film are devoted to characters going at each other’s throats, and as tedious and irritating as this may sound (and often is), it’s never less than compelling in its genuineness: These kids are insufferable and they’re more than happy to make everyone around them feel their wrath. Not only is the play the thing here, so are the rituals of adolescent behavior, with the world, naturally, as their stage. Kechiche even parallels the theatricality of Marivaux’s play with the artifice of the teenage experience, but as for a social context, the events and themes from Marivaux’s play more subtly and cunningly address issues of class than the characters in the film sometimes do, like when the teacher in charge of the Marivaux production discusses how behavior is inextricably bound to social status.
Like Tim Blake Nelson’s O, the film plays out like a teen version of a Shakespeare play (it isn’t, but it’s almost best to enjoy it as such), you half expect the constant swirl of shifting alliances, betrayals, and chance run-ins to be capped with a bloodbath of some kind. Kechiche seems to understand this level of expectation, and it’s something he toys with, which is probably why the film’s coda is at once refreshing and frustrating. L’Esquive consistently teeters on the brink of tragedy (a confrontation between the kids and a group of thuggish cops is chilling) but dares to end on a chipper note, a slap in the face to viewers who aren’t content with the tragedy inherent in the bad behavior of these children: They love and hate like Romeo and Juliet, even if they don’t die like them. Why shouldn’t that be enough?