At one point during the run-up to the festival, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's Grigris looked like one of the favorites to win the Palme d'Or. After its unspooling here on Wednesday, though, it appears that the Chadian director will go empty-handed this year (though you never know with these Cannes juries, right, Carlos Reygadas?). In part based on the life of lead Souleymane Démé (in his acting debut), the film lacks the tension and drive to keep the audience interested at all times, and ends on a pretty ridiculous note. Add to that the amateurish acting by newcomer Démé in a role that requires him to carry the film, and all you are left with is the couleur locale that makes for a nice divertissement from the environments we've seen so far in competition. Hardly an endorsement.
Grigris is a cripple, an immigrant in Chad from Burkina Faso. Living with a surrogate father in deteriorating health, Grigris dances for money in a local club at night to make ends meet. His paralyzed left leg doesn't seem to hinder him when he is on stage. One night he is spotted by Mimi (Anaïs Monory, also debuting), a prostitute mostly working the foreign businessman segment of Chad's capital, N'Djamena. She is immediately taken by him, and seizes the opportunity to contact him through his job as a portfolio photographer. As one outcast recognizing the other (prostitution still is largely taboo in Africa), she feels a connection to this odd, gentle young man.
When his surrogate father has to be hospitalized, Grigris is in dire need of money, and turns to gang leader Moussa for help. Initially employing him as a petrol smuggler across the river bordering Burkina Faso (a nearly fatal trip, as Grigris can't swim), Moussa eventually puts him behind the wheel of the truck that transports smuggled jerrycans into the capital. An ill-informed decision by Grigris then puts him and Mimi in immediate danger, and they have to go on the run.
With Grigris in almost every frame, the film rises and falls on the capabilities of the lead actor. Sadly, Démé lacks charisma and is not up to the task. It's hard to know what both Mimi and director Haroun saw in him, except when he's dancing in clubs in Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou. In those scenes Démé's strength comes out full force, his disproportionally long arms and weird-angled left leg giving him the appearance of an octopus moving about the stage, absolutely entrancing. Off the dance floor, however, his performance is too internal and timid to keep the eye from wandering. In that sense, the other newcomer Monory fares much better. Not that her acting is stellar, but her lanky figure and intriguing facial features liven up the screen whenever the camera is on her. Early in the film she is rejected as a model, and one has to wonder about the requirements in the Chadian modelling business.
While Haroun gives us some insight into the social problems affecting dropouts of Chad's society and what they have to deal with every day, dramatically the film lacks the poise to keep us interested for its 100-minute running time. So when the hilariously bad final scene rolls, it's a relief, and at least lets viewers leave the theater with a smile, however unintentional.