Wallay (2017)

A somewhat common narrative from recent European indies has been detailing the lives of the massive immigrant communities that live in the large housing block projects at the fringes of cities like London & Paris. Titles like Girlhood, Swagger, and Attack the Block have found an unfathomably wide range of stories to tell within that context, but remain confined to those insular communities in a kind of stationary, immersive experience. The recent French indie Wallay offers a take on the housing block immigrant experience I haven’t seen before by transporting its subjects to a drastically external, literally foreign setting. Wallay is worthy in its own right as an endearing coming of age story about a second-generation French immigrant learning small scale lessons about responsibility, romance, and identity, but those are familiar story beats we’ve seen many times before. It feels much more unique & revelatory in the way it details the cultural limbo immigrants occupy between the European cities that keep them at arm’s length & the African villages they left for economic opportunity by thoughtfully profiling both ends of that divide.

A second-generation, teenage French immigrant butts heads with his exasperated father who cannot control his behavior. A little badass in a bucket hat, the teenage delinquent commits minor acts of small scale rebellion in his Parisian housing block for payoffs as glorious as black market tennis shoes & appearing in YouTube-upload rap videos. He runs into trouble when he’s caught committing one of his more egregious schemes, siphoning off funds from the money orders his father sends back home to their extended family in West Africa. As punishment, he’s sent to the African village where his father was raised to live with the family he stole from, where he is tasked with paying back the money through months of manual labor. As a spoiled brat, he of course initially refuses to participate in this lesson in humility, scoffing in horror at his new “home’s” infrequent power supply & lack of indoor plumbing, His struggle to adjust to & learn from his mistakes is especially apparent in his relationship with his new caretaker & would-be employer, a harsh authority figure of an uncle. The language & cultural barriers between the mismatched pair eventually break down in the exact ways you’d expect them to, but Wallay finds plenty of delicate moments of humility, romance, familial love, and personal growth in the struggle, with many of them being solidly, endearingly comedic.

Berni Goldblat’s directorial debut saw its American premiere at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival. Outside a few scenes of its bratty teen protagonist struggling to trek through African wilderness or listening to hip-hop in headphones inside a mosquito tent, Wallay is only about a visually striking as you’d expect from a mini-budget indie with those means of distribution. The film finds its own tonal groove elsewhere, though, especially in its minimalist, plucked cello score & its circumcision-obsessed cultural humor, which can be much cruder than you’d expect from this kind of story. Teen actor Makan Nathan Diarra also elevates Wallay with genuine character moments as the lead grows into a better, more empathetic person. Mostly, though, the film feels significant in the way it adds a new wrinkle to the European housing block narrative by giving that community an external perspective. These kids really are caught halfway between two identities and I haven’t seen that cultural limbo represented onscreen quite like this before.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 27: Galia (1966)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Galia (1966) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 156 of the first edition hardback, Ebert recalls his early days as a professional film critic. He writes, “The first film I reviewed for the Sun-Times was Galia, from France. I watched it from a center seat in the Old World Playhouse, bursting with the awareness that I was reviewing it, and then I went back to the office and wrote that it was one more last gasp of the French New Wave, rolling ashore. That made me sound more insightful than I was.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: “Georges Lautner’s Galia opens and closes with arty shots of the ocean, mother of us all, but in between it’s pretty clear that what is washing ashore is the French New Wave. Ever since the memorable Breathless (1960) and Jules and Jim, and the less memorable La Verite, we have been treated to a parade of young French girls running gaily toward the camera in slow motion, their hair waving in the wind in just such a way that we know immediately they are liberated, carefree, jolly and doomed. Poor Galia is another.” -from his 1966 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

When teenage girls gaze into the Eiffel Tower posters that adorn their bedroom walls, I imagine the ideal Parisian life they long for is the one depicted in Galia. The titular protagonist of this mildly sexed-up French drama is a small town 20-something who moved to Paris to make do as a carefree shop girl. She lives alone in a studio apartment, frequently indulges in casual sex, smokes like a chimney outside and inside her favorite cafés, sketches strangers in her notepad, and just generally enjoys a young adult’s freedom without any significant responsibilities. Over the course of the film Galia is shaken out of her carefree reverie into a more recognizable adult existence, but a large part of the movie’s charm is that initial fantasy of an artistic Parisian life. I suppose that was the intent of director Georges Lautner in the first place. Lautner often verbally criticized the hoity-toity inventiveness of his contemporaries in the French New Wave and instead poised himself as something of a populist, crafting critically ignored works that were popularly broadcast on French television. Galia‘s lighthearted whimsy plays right into that sense of entertainment-for-its-own-sake populism, even when it deviates from that Parisian fantasy into topics as hefty as adultery, betrayal, and suicide.

Galia has her first taste of responsibility-hindered adult life when she saves a woman from drowning in a river and offers her a place to stay. When she discovers that the woman attempted suicide over a dispute with her husband, she finds the reasoning ridiculous. To Galia, there are way too many hot, young bachelors in Paris to focus on just one, therefore “men aren’t worth killing yourself over.” To help break this woman out of her marital rut, Galia convinces her to continue to play dead, as if the suicide were successful. She then spies on the husband as a proxy to gauge his reaction to his recent loss, turning the crisis into a frivolous game of espionage whimsy. It’s not a very well thought-out​ plan. Galia inevitably falls head over heels for the cheating, suicide-inspiring husband despite the wife’s protests, even following him on a romantic weekend getaway in Venice. If you’re going to track her arc as a character throughout the film, I suppose the lesson she learns by accidentally falling in love with this obvious lout is that romance can inspire you to do drastic things, like jump off a bridge or contemplate a murder, no matter how many hot, available men are walking the streets of Paris. The love triangle between the carefree shop girl, the nearly-drowned woman, and her emotionally abusive husband can only drive towards an inevitably tragic end, which is a shame, because Galia works best when it functions like a lighthearted, whimsical comedy.

Because Georges Lautner seems to have an anti-intellectual air to his directorial style, Galia‘s worst moments are when it strays from presenting a comedic fantasy about a sex-positive shop girl into echoing more traditional French New Wave territory. Exchanges like, “Life is not much,” “Death is nothing at all,” and occasional “artsy” choices like scrolling the opening credits over negative footage of beach waves or indulging in an unconvincingly abstract nightmare sequence are embarrassingly flat in their half-hearted stabs at pretension, almost to the point of New Wave parody. Just about the only times this mild attempt at artfulness feels genuine or worthwhile is when Lautner aims to depict sexuality. Close-ups of drinking straws & cigarettes touching women’s tongues or young bodies twirling in wet bathing suits make for the rare artfully crafted image where Lautner doesn’t feel as if he’s asleep at the wheel. There’s also a brief detour to a weird, drunken orgy hosted by the cheating husband and a business associate that straddles both sides of the line, the engaged and the inept, as if it were plucked directly from a Doris Wishman picture. These questionably artistic deviations are few & far between, though. Mostly, Galia plays like a harmless, sexed-up melodrama and a teen girl’s fantasy of a liberated life in gay Paree.

In the long run, the most significant aspect of Galia might be that it was the subject of Roger Ebert’s first film review for the Chicago Sun-Times, the publication that defined the critic’s career as a writer. In that review, he lightly criticizes the film for being a poor, late-in-the-game example of The French New Wave. That point feels a little disingenuous, given how much the film feels largely uninterested in art film pretension, choosing to instead chase a mildly sexy, highly melodramatic form of crowd-pleasing populism. I will concede that its most artsy, New Wavy aspects were its biggest stumbling blocks, though. Galia is recommendable as a taste of whimsical Parisian fantasy and a cheap shot melodrama, but anyone looking for the attention to visual craft and philosophical dilemmas typically associated with modern French Cinema is certain to walk away disappointed, as it sounds like Roger did.

Roger’s Rating (2.5/4, 63%)

Brandon’s Rating (3/5, 60%)

Next Lesson: Casablanca (1942)

-Brandon Ledet