Emmanuelle Bercot’s Standing Tall and Philippe Faucon’s Fatima present two very different versions of motherhood in France, both of which emerge out of social precarity. Bercot’s film follows the history of violence of Malony (Rod Paradot), a white teen in the foster system with a young drug-using mother, from his first visit to judge Florence’s (Catherine Deneuve) office at age six to his becoming an adult before the law. Fatima (Soria Zeroual), the über-mother in Faucon’s film, is a divorced Algerian immigrant who barely speaks French, and who cleans houses all day to support her two teenage daughters, one of whom is just starting to pile up medical school bills.
Both films have that awkward genesis of being authored by filmmakers who may be accused of “knowing nothing” about their subjects because they’re not from the milieu that they portray or bear the racial and religious markers that mar many of their characters’ chances for achievement. This lack of coincidence between the author and the reality they depict becomes an undeniable problem in these films through superficial pedagogic exercises with overtly clear messages. We comprehend Malony and Fatima’s struggles only as synthetic concoctions, and as such the films don’t strike us at a guttural level. They lack the sort of detail that might have spoken to the filmmakers’ emotional connection to the subject matter, which exudes a stagey, self-conscious emotional urgency.
The films’ very first scenes announce their intentions with little nuance, as we see Malony abandoned by his mother in the judge’s office, out of which the audience and the boy will rarely leave, and as Fatima’s daughter is rejected from renting an apartment when the real estate agent sees Fatima’s Muslim headscarf. Such an on-the-nose approach punctuates these films long after their initial sequences, like reminders of the filmmakers’ populist intentions, and of the distance between their experiences and their characters’.
This is evident in the various instances when Fatima’s too-cool-for-school youngest daughter ridicules her mother for being a maid and not being able to read, or when Fatima’s oldest daughter justifies not wanting to go to a party with her roommate by saying she can’t tell people her mother cleans houses. More than sufficient is the close-up on Zeroual’s disheartened face, which spells out the weight of external shame. Standing Tall also lays out its agenda through predictable situations and dialogue, as when Malony tells a girl who has a crush on him, “You’re worthless,” obviously referencing what he’s been told all his life, before asking her if she knows how to give oral.
It’s in the few scenes when Bercot strays away from her overtly traditional aesthetics that the film communicates something genuine about Malony, something that doesn’t denounce the lack of synchrony between the misery depicted on screen and the privilege of the ones architecting the filmic image. When Malony throws a fit in front of yet another authoritative figure, instead of cutting to him being taken to jail, the film offers us a close-up of Malony dancing to crazy electronic beats, his face perforated by intoxicating nightclub LEDs. As Bercot allows for some abstraction, Malony finally turns his violence into something other than itself, into actions without victims.
In Fatima, however, it’s when Faucon pushes the conventional narrative of selfless motherhood to its sentimental zenith that the film disarms us. It’s almost impossible not to weep in its final depiction of maternal pride, when Fatima quietly looks for her daughter’s name in the sheets posted on the school walls in order to see if she’s finally made it. Fatima’s self-effacement is rendered complete, and completely honorable. The scene recalls the mother-daughter ceasefire in Anna Muylaert’s The Second Mother, another film about unacknowledged maternal sacrifice and cleaning ladies, when the two finally stop trying to settle old resentments and simply surrender to love.
Rendez-Vous with French Cinema runs from March 3—13.