Lafosse’s film is based on the true story of Zoé’s Ark, a French NGO whose members were arrested for illegally trying to fly 103 African children from Chad to France in 2007. At the time the story raised questions over whether the affair was simply humanitarian goodwill gone wrong or more worryingly a sinister cover for child trafficking. Frustratingly, Les Chevaliers Blancs doesn’t deliver a clear answer. Vincent Lindon plays Jacques Arnault, the head of the fictional Move for Children NGO, as an ambiguous character, full of contradiction. It’s impossible to say if he’s a good man forced to employ dubious techniques for the common good or a self-interested, would-be mercenary. And Lafosse gives the audience plenty of time to ponder the question. Les Chevaliers Blancs has the makings of an excellent thriller – dramatic storyline, impressive setting, great characters, an excellent cast. But these elements sink without trace as Lafosse takes far too long to kickstart the action and grapple with the moral issues at the core of the story. Most of the early scenes revolve around seemingly banal details – airplane parts that are missing, un-cooperative local tribal chiefs. Likewise the simmering tensions that exist between the NGO members, including Jacques girlfriend (Louise Bourgoin), and the well-intentioned doctors and nurses there to provide medical assistance, never amount to much. In stepping back from passing judgment on Jacques and his volunteers or the African villagers who willingly hand over their children, Lafosse’s film comes across as vacuous and meaningless.
Jacques Arnault has persuaded a number of French families who want to adopt a child to finance an operation to bring orphaned children from a war-torn African country back to France. Together with a team of volunteers, he has a month to find 300 children under five-years-old and put them on a plane home to meet their new French families. The success of his plan depends on being able to persuade African village chiefs that the children will be raised in a locally-built orphanage until they are 15-years-old – a lie he has invented to disguise his real aims.
As revealed by his performance in The Measure of a Man, which rightly earned him the Best Actor prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Lindon is a master of non-verbal communcation. And the same barely supressed anger brilliantly on display in Stéphane Brizé’s film, is again seen here although exactly who or what he is raging against remains a mystery. Lindon is well-supported by the excellent Rada Kateb, woefully underused as the pilot and go-between with the African villages., Bourgoin and director/actor Valérie Donzelli as a TV journalist filming the whole enterprise. But it’s Bintou Rimtobaye, as the African interpreter, who makes the biggest impression. In an acting master-class, she manages to convey desperation, confusion and eventually anger in one seamless, flawless performance. Thomas Bidegain, the long-time Jacques Audiard collaborator who recently directed his first film, Les Cowboys, contributed to the script. But Bidegain’s talent for compelling storytelling is sadly missing and Les Chevaliers Blancs is strangely unappealing