It’s a tough act to follow. Intouchables took 332 million euros worldwide and made a star of Omar Sy. Directors Eric Toledana and Olivier Nakache have kept to a winning formula by again casting Sy in the lead role, but Samba lacks the magic ingredient that made Intouchables such a big hit. Its stellar cast including Charlotte Gainsbourg and Tahar Rahim – in a lighter mood than usual – can’t match the chemistry between Sy and Francois Cluzet and the simple fact that Intouchables is a better story. That film engaged the audience on several levels whereas there are few surprises in Samba and the film diligently trundles towards an inevitable conclusion.
Samba (Omar Sy) is a Senegalese immigrant who has worked illegallly in France for 10 years. The authorities eventually catch up with him and he is put into a detention centre pending a decision on whether he is to be deported. At the centre, he meets Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who is recovering from a nervous breakdown and helping out as a volunteer as part of her recovery. She is immediately drawn to Samba but they belong to two completely different worlds. He lives with his uncle in a squalid apartment in Paris and spends his days looking for work while Alice is a middle-class woman living in relative luxury in her beautiful Parisian apartment. The question is whether there is enough common ground between these two for a relationship to blossom?
Samba sets off as a gritty social drama which sits at odds with the highly romanticised relationship that gradually develops between Samba and Alice. Toledana and Nakache show a Paris far removed from the picture postcard image of upmarket boutiques, cafes and restaurants. Immigrants live in the poorest parts of the city and are in a catch 22 situation – they don’t have the papers needed to find regular work and cannot obtain these papers without a proper job. This forces them into low-paid, menial jobs where they are often hired on a daily basis and are always exposed to police raids and possible deportation. It’s a dangerous, demoralising existence with little hope of improvement. Alice’s problems are on a whole other level. She is suffering ‘burn out’ from a job which she did 24/7 at the expense of a personal life. Her attraction to Samba is mainly physical and she seems unaware of the reality of his daily existence. This lack of any real understanding between the two makes the relationship ring hollow and, as a result, hard to sympathise with. The second half of the film is less social drama and more romantic comedy with a superfluous subplot concerning a former detainee at the detention centre. It’s pure legwork as the various plot threads are brought together to form a whole.
Despite the heavy subject matter, Toledana and Nakache clearly haven’t lost the ability to spot the absurd in the unlikeliest of places. The scenes where Alice and her co-workers try to communicate with people who don’t speak French are sharply observed and manage to be both poignant and funny. There is also more mainstream comedy mainly through the character of Algerian immigrant Wilson (Rahim) who is mascararding as a Brazilian because it goes down better with the ladies. Omar Sy is a hugely charismatic actor and his charm and sincerity carry the film. He is best known in France for his part in an sketch show on national television, Service Apres Vente, which gave no indication of his talent as a serious actor. He has now been snapped up by Hollywood appearing beside Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart in X-Men: Days of Future Past and James Franco and Kate Hudson in Good People. but it’s to be hoped he continues to make films in France. Elsewhere Rahim is excellent as the street smart Wilson who, in spite of circumstances, has an enviable joie de vivre. Only Gainsbourg seems ill at ease in a role which possibly needed a lighter touch.