A French variation of The Station Agent which substitutes that film’s off-putting renaissance-of-the-spirit finale for an ineffective air of despondence, Welcome details what happens after former gold medal-winning swimmer Simon (Vincent Lindon) befriends Bilal (Firat Ayverdi), an illegal immigrant from Iraq. After failing to sneak into England by truck, Bilal decides that the best route to the U.K. (where his girlfriend lives) is by swimming the English Channel, a foolhardy endeavor that nonetheless brings him to the pool where Simon gives lessons. Despite strict French laws outlawing citizens from harboring or assisting illegals, Simon slowly develops a humanitarian streak toward Bilal, his work on the boy’s behalf—and the reciprocated affection the boy feels for him—filling an emotional void created by his divorce from wife Marion (Audrey Dana), who now works with her new beau at a soup kitchen for illegals.
When not tenderly capturing the internal upheaval wrought by divorce, an aim aided by Lindon’s quietly wrenching performance, director Philippe Lioret roots his political concerns in Bilal’s personal plight. What he doesn’t do, however, is even attempt to have his film seriously tackle the thorny complications of France’s urgent immigration issues, instead falling back on reductive black-and-white preaching. From its outset, Welcome unwaveringly characterizes Bilal (interested not only in reuniting with his girl, but making money to send back home to his family in Kurdistan) as simply an honorable innocent victim of an unjust system that denies him citizenship and safe cross-border passage.
Meanwhile, it casts those official forces intent on incarcerating or persecuting him and those like him—from a flippant judge who casually deals with his initial arrest, to grocery store security guards who won’t let Arabs in the store, to a police officer with a heart (and face) of stone—as cardboard-cutout xenophobic villains driven only by intolerance. Consequently, the film is merely a one-note moral lesson devoid of dialogue with the very hot-button topics it feigns interest in, sidestepping questions of national identity and the push-pull between political compassion and pragmatism in favor of stock tragedy in which—big surprise—the dark-skinned guy suffers in order to further enlighten the light-skinned guy.
Welcome will play on March 12 and 14 as part of this year’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series. To purchase tickets, click here.