After Sylvie Ohayon’s Papa was Not a Rolling Stone and Céline Sciamma’s Bande de Filles, French cinema once again turns to life on one of France’s much maligned, high-rise housing estates for inspiration. While Ohayon and Sciamma found fresh takes on a well-documented social stratum, Marianne Tardieu’s Qui Vive is a disappointment, lacking rythmn and focus despite the best efforts of Reda Kateb and Adèle Exarchopoulos in the lead roles.
Chérif (Kateb) has reached a crossroads. In his mid-thirties he has moved back to live with his parents on a housing estate just outside Rennes and is awaiting the results of his fourth attempt to pass a written exam to train as a male nurse. In the meantime he has found work as a security guard in a local shopping centre. The work is dull and made worse by a group of bored teenagers who hang out at the mall and amuse themselves by daily taunting Chérif. The one bright spot in his life is an unexpected romance with a young teacher Jenny (Exarchopoulos). But Chérif cannot escape the darker side of life on the estate and he makes a bad decision which puts his future plans in jeopardy.
Tardieu paints a harsh picture of life in France’s rougher, mostly immigrant, suburbs. Living conditions are grim, work is hard to find and it’s easy to see why some youngsters are drawn to a life of crime. Look at Chérif’s friend, Dedah (Rashid Debbouze), a well-known criminal who is given a hero’s welcome, even by Chérif’s mother, when he returns to Rennes on a visit. While Chérif has so far resisted temptation, sticking to the straight and narrow is not easy and his life is a lot less glamourous than Dedah’s and his gangsta friends. So what can you expect in return for living an honest, hardworking life? Not much, according to Qui Vive. The overall message is one of ‘keep your head down, don’t expect too much from life and you won’t be disappointed’.
Ketab, who is best-known to foreign audiences as Ammar in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero, Dark Thirty, is a hugely sympathetic actor. He was in a class of his own in Thomas Lilti’s Hippocrate and is both vulnerable and slightly menacing in Qui Vive. The scene where he goes before a board for an oral exam is both moving and excruciating. Exarchopoulos spends a minimal amount of time on screen which is a shame as she is provides much needed contrast to the general gloom and doom of the film.