Working with non-professional actors is always a bit of a risk for a director to take, but there is an upside to it as well: most often the cast will be matched to the milieu the film is set in, a milieu these ‘actors’ are already familiar with since it is their life. French director Jean-Bernard Marlin, up until now known for his short films (La Fugue won a Golden Bear in Berlin in 2013, for instance) made such a brave choice for his first feature-length film Shéhérazade, and it paid off. The film, playing as a special screening in the selection of the Semaine de la Critique, is a lived-in, explosive love story between two teenagers in the Arab underbelly of Marseille that proves that love can take root even on the harshest of soils.
Zachary (Dylan Robert), 17 years old, is released from juvenile detention, only to find out that his mother rejects him. Reuniting with his friends on the mean streets of Marseille, he is treated by them to the services of young prostitute Shéhérazade (Kenza Fortas). Even though she initially robs him of his stash of weed, they later hook up again and a furtive love blossoms between them. After they agree that he will pimp for her and her friends and they do a hostile takeover of a good streetwalking spot, money starts flowing in and Zachary and Shéhérazade grow closer together. To his friends, however, she is still nothing more than a prostitute to be used at will, and one of his friends tries to take advantage of her. This forces Zachary into making a choice that he can’t turn back on.
What strikes first and foremost in Shéhérazade is the casualness with which the characters undergo the events in their lives. Prostitution, robbery, violence, and the use of weapons all come naturally to Zachary, Shéhérazade, and the other inhabitants of the rough neighborhood. The aplomb with which they deal with all this shows the street knowledge the young cast has acquired on these very same streets, which gives the film authenticity in spades. Even though the screenplay follows a rather predictable trajectory, the cinema vérité feel of Marlin’s direction and DP Jonathan Ricquebourg’s camerawork is never compromised. The natural charisma and assured performances by the two leads and the way they portray their budding romance prevents Shéhérazade from becoming an all-too-tough watch, despite the serious nature of all that befalls them.
An interesting touch that adds a deeper layer is the prologue Marlin attaches to the film. Through archive images starting from the 1960s he tracks the development of banlieus like the one in the film, mostly inhabited by the North African immigrants in the photos. It shows how their new country in a way has failed these immigrants, resulting in an unintended yet very real segregation. This leads to high crime, as the film portrays, but as the south of France unfortunately already has seen, it can also lead to radicalization among these young muslims. The short sequence of images as the title cards roll is a nifty political statement in a film that elsewhere plays it straight. It is perhaps there that Marlin could have taken a bit more risk, but it doesn’t rob Shéhérazade of its raw power, and as debuts go, the film is a promising start for the young director.