Gaël Morel’s sixth feature film may very well be his most accomplished to date. The actor-turned-director (first discovered in André Téchiné’s Wild Reeds over two decades ago, for which he received a Most Promising Actor César nomination) returns to Maghreb for the second time after filming Under Another Sky in Algeria (a TIFF Fipresci winner) in 2002. But this time around Morel has set his heart on Morocco, in chaotic and hypnotic Tangiers…like his director-mentor did with Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu in Changing Times right after Wild Reeds…coincidentally or not. They’ve come full circle!
In Catch the Wind (Prendre le large), Sandrine Bonnaire seems to be resurfacing as a distant reincarnation of her devastating Mona from Agnès Varda’s Golden Lion Vagabond. Both characters have in common an incommensurable solitude and bear on their stern faces the severe torments of a brutal life, be it through wandering the wintry French countryside as a young homeless woman or working to the point of exhaustion in a Moroccan sewing factory. Indeed life has not been kind to these women. But whereas the French New Wave icon had hardly any choice but to abandon her female protagonist in a cold pit, in Morel’s film, there seems to be a ray of light after all under the Moroccan sheltering sky (perfectly exemplified by the very last shot in the film, that I shall not spoil here).
Edith (Bonnaire), a widowed textile factory worker whose only (gay) son has almost turned his back on her, decides, to the human resource manager’s bewilderment, to accept being transferred to Morocco as the company is taking drastic downsizing measures that would throw her on the dole otherwise. She is the one and only worker to refuse dismissal compensation for fear of unemployment on the pretext that she has got nothing (nor anyone) to lose by moving to Tangiers.
Gaël Morel films the harsh reality of factory work in Morocco with extreme details, emphasizing the total absence of trade unions, a fear-dominated environment and defective machines that literally electrocute their workers! Edith is dismissed from her position for a theft she has not committed. The barbaric work conditions in these relocated Western companies couldn’t be better depicted.
With Mina (Mouna Fettou), the owner of the boarding house Edith has moved to, and Mina’s son Ali (Kamal El Amri), she will ultimately find an unexpected sense of belonging, a new friendship in this Mediterranean city – and she will succeed in reinventing herself against all odds. The film also throws light on the evolution of Moroccan society despite the constant threat of Islamic radicalism. Mina, for instance, has managed to obtain her divorce thanks to the new Mudawana (the Moroccan social code of family).
To say that Sandrine Bonnaire’s performance here is phenomenal would be an understatement (the part was written by Morel and Rachid O for her). She is in every single frame of the film and her character’s arc enables her to deliver one of the most complex and heartrending portraits of a woman we’ve seen on screen, along with Wanda or Jeanne Dielman. And just as she won the Best Actress César in 1986 for…Vagabond, here’s hoping she wins her second lead award next year with her Edith. We will have come full circle, again!