15, Key Cities

London River
12A, Key Cities

Leaving is a French film while London River is kind of French and although I don’t really know what this has got to do with anything I do know the following: they’ll both put you through the wringer. One (London River) will put you through it rather more than the other but, make no mistake, both will do the job, and it’s best you are warned in advanced. No one likes being put through a wringer unexpectedly. It can ruin your day. And make you late for work.

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First, Leaving. This is the properly French film, set around Nîmes, written and directed by Catherine Corsini and starring the bilingual Kristin Scott Thomas. Can you take your eyes off Ms Scott Thomas? You cannot. She has, I suppose, an almost cryogenic beauty plus a certain I-don’t-know-what. (I dearly wish there were a neat, simple French phrase to encapsulate that I-don’t-know-what, but you can’t have everything, I suppose.) She plays Suzanne, mother of two and the wife of a well-to-do, well-connected doctor with whom she lives in one of those contemporary, glass, architect-designed houses that, in cinematic terms, are intended to spell out s-o-u-l-l-e-s-s but always look pretty damned fine to me. I could happily live without soul in a house like that. But she is bored, and taken for granted — aren’t we all? At least you get a great house of it, love — and it all kicks off when she falls for the Spanish builder (Sergi López) who comes to work on their shed. You can tell she has fallen for him when she takes his hand and puts it on her crotch. It’s always a bit of a giveaway, and not something you should ever do in passing. (I tried it once with my postman and got into terrible trouble. He still won’t look me in the eye, and posts our letters in really fast.)

This is a tale of passion, obsession, sex and how far Suzanne is willing to go in pursuit of her own desire. And it will put you through it, in spite of yourself, and in spite of it. This is an overwrought film, and it may even be a banal film — it is very Lady Chatterley — and yet I was drawn in and wrung out even though Suzanne isn’t especially sympathetic. She treats her husband (Yvan Attal) like some Victorian, patriarchal villain and while he is boorish, doesn’t he have the right to try to hang on to her? Why should he support her and her lover? But Leaving is still peculiarly powerful, as well as sun-drenched, which always helps, and if, ultimately, emotional credibility is sacrificed for an explosive, absurdly OTT ending, it gets you there in an entirely compelling way.

And now, London River, which is kind of French, yet as sunless as anything ever gets. Written and directed by the French Algerian Rachid Bouchareb, and made with a French team, it’s set in London in the immediate aftermath of the 7/7 bombings, although it isn’t about that incident as such. It’s about two people brought together who would otherwise never meet in a place they would otherwise never visit. The two people are parents searching for their missing children. One, played by the African actor Sotigui Kouyaté, is the French-speaking, forlorn father of a missing Muslim boy. The other (Brenda Blethyn) is a mother from Guernsey whose daughter has disappeared. The pair eventually collide at the flat above the Halal butcher’s flat in Finsbury Park, north London, where, it turns out, the son and the daughter had been living together. I cannot speak for Bouchareb’s sense of time and place generally, but would say that his Finsbury Park, which is entirely populated by kind people who also happen to speak French, is not my Finsbury Park, which is where I live. Or, as I shouted after the hoodie who mugged me just the other week, ‘That, young man, is neither French nor kind! Give me my bag back!’

Dramatically spare — to say the least — the film avoids the usual clichés about cultural misunderstandings yet packs its own kind of punch. Largely, it all comes down to the performances, as this is an actor’s film, and the actors certainly run with it. Kouyaté, who is the blackest, boniest man you ever did see, is all calm resignation underwritten by a terrible sadness, while Blethyn’s pain becomes our pain. It’s astonishingly moving, in its quiet, harrowing, weary way, although you may rightly ask: if it’s so painful, why would I want to sit though it? Because, my dears, that is life. Naturally, I wish there were a French phrase for that too.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated