Dir. Serge Le Péron, 2005, France, 101mins, subtitles
Cast: Charles Berling, Simon Abkarian, Josiane Balasko, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Fabienne Babe, Mathieu Amalric, Azize Kabouche
Review by Kevin Holmes
An intriguing film about the abduction and subsequent killing (although his body has never been found) of left-wing Moroccan opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka (Abkarian). A major figure in the anti-colonial Third World movement of the 1960's his death was a shock and disheartening blow to his supporters. His disappearance being yet another hushed example of the corruption and underhandedness that goes on behind the scenes of international politics – this time involving the Moroccan government, the French secret service and that stalwart of international conspiracies, the CIA. It's a tragic affair and Péron tells the tale from the perspective of Georges Figon (Berling); a shady figure who had contacts in both the criminal underground and the Parisian cultural scene of the time and was recruited by a Moroccan government agent, a man called Chtouki, (played to sinister perfection by Kabouche) to help entrap Barka in Paris.
Mixing archive documentary footage with his own take on what happened Péron seeks to recreate the vibe of those crazy days, borrowing stylistically from the French directors of the time (even going so far as to use the same actors – Jean-Pierre Léaud who plays Eyes Without a Face director Georges Franju was in Godard's Masculin feminine: 15 faits précis) and underlying it all with a hip, groovy jazz score.
The film's tone is one of noir, giving a little nod to Jean-Pierre Melville, as it begins with the discovery of George Figon's dead body with him narrating over the scene a la Sunset Boulevard. He was allegedly a crook but Péron presents him as an affable, cheeky chap with no real political leanings, someone who's just trying to earn a quick buck. Unlike his politically savvy associates who range from the aforementioned director Franju (excellently played by Léaud) and the writer of Hiroshima Mon Amour, Marguerite Duras, wonderfully played by Balasko. Although he has no political inclinations he's presented as having a moral compass even though he's the one who lures Barka to the Brasserie Lipp, a café in Paris, which ultimately leads to his death. Georges knows he's done wrong and after the event is wracked with guilt, so trying to save face he goes to the papers with the story, which is really the beginning of his end – shortly after he's found dead in his apartment, the verdict, suspiciously, is suicide.
Berling puts in a great performance as Figon infusing the character with humour and humanity and the film makes for an enjoyable and enlightening experience. This is certainly something that the French, Moroccan and American governments would rather remain dead and buried, so full credit to Péron for unearthing it and giving it the treatment it deserves. It meets somewhere in the middle between pulp thriller and political diatribe with the noir aspects, while far from original, adding to the intrigue and giving the film a certain laissez-faire attitude that it carries throughout.
To an English audience who have probably never heard the name Ben Barka, it's not going to have them rushing to the multiplexes, but it won't be showing at those anyway.
As another example of the corruption and foul play at the centre of every government it deserves to be seen. I felt quite outraged at the end of it and even though the French government claimed they released the files for public viewing nothing was actually revealed with Barka's son angrily calling it a “pseudo-release of files” which is something the film agrees with. So, if you fancy something political with a bit of French style added to the mix, head on over to the Renoir – then once the film's over we'll take to the streets, fly the black flag, voice our collective dissent and tear Parliament a new one!