The opening scene of a young woman in a wedding dress running for her life sets the tone of Tony Gatlif’s Geronimo, a high-energy, vibrant story of clan rivalry set in the south of France. The director uses an hypnotic mix of dance and music, professional and non-professional actors, set against the heat of a Mediterranean summer, to bring this reworking of West Side Story to the big screen.
The bride-to-be is Nil (Nailia Harzoune), a 16-year-old woman of Turkish origin who is running from an arranged marriage to an older man to be with her lover, a young Spanish gitane named Lucky Molina (David Murgia). The love affair pits the two immigrant communities against each other after Nils brother, Fazil (Rachid Yous), vows to kill his sister to avenge the family’s honour. Geronimo (Celine Sallette) works with young adults from this deprived area and she finds herself in the middle of an explosive situation. As her name suggests, the feud has echoes of the Wild West and Geronimo is the hapless sheriff trying to bring calm to a lawless town.
Gatlif is back on familiar territory with his explosive use of gitanes dance and music coupled here with hip-hop and some opera thrown in for good measure. It’s an engaging mix even if there is scant story line for the focus of all this energy. The film is best seen as a sequence of stunning set pieces woven together by Gatlif with skill and passion. Straddling Geronimo is Patrick Ghiringhelli’s striking cinematography which gives several scenes, especially Nil running through a field of pampas grass, a dreamlike, abstract quality. Sallette is excellent as the dedicated Geronimo who is determined to fight to the bitter end to try and improve the outlook for the town’s deprived youngsters. She already proved her worth in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette alongside Kirsten Dunst and in Bertrand Bonello’s House of Tolerance and Jaques Audiard’s Rust and Bone. And here her measured performance is the perfect counterpoint to Gatlif’s chaos and frenzy.
Geronimo has failings as far as a credible narrative is concerned and the film suffers from the use of non-professional actors in many of the lead roles. But who can fault Gatlif’s intentions and skill?