16 May 2017 | ElMaruecan82
A sadly forgotten gem of the 80's Made-in-France...
A black eye is called in French "eye of black butter" and the word 'butter' sounds exactly the same as the slang for 'Arab'. So, if you translate the title of Serge Meynard's debut film as "The Black Eye", you lose a pleasant and clever satirical pun
but that's all that is lost hopefully for the film doesn't lose any ounce of social relevance, not from a foreign perspective, not from a French one of 2017, thirty years after its release. Like many 'social' comedies, the film encompasses the struggle of minorities to get a share of the French 'dream', if you can call it a 'dream' in the mid-80's that were a sort of Nixon era in France, disillusion-wise.
But don't get it the wrong way either, if this is a film that deals with racism, it focuses on one of its less benign forms, one that prevailed before September 11 and the suburbs' riots created definite shifts into French society. The film not only works on stereotypes and perceptions from one community to another but plays with them with tactful fun, the so-called "racism" is only based on suspicion, bigotry and prejudices that are instantly forgiven because they make you laugh. Take one scene where a big Arab family (a "smala" as they say) visits a white upper-class mansion, the host politely points out how numerous they are, to which the father retorts that the little one couldn't come but the big baby-sitting. Later when she unpacks the box cake, she marvels at the sight of a giant 'luqum', we call it a Rum Baba, the Arab mother says.
The intelligence in the humor is that, while it criticizes the way White people are prejudiced against minorities because of some vivid clichés, it mostly points out the failures to communicate ensuing from minor cultural gaps, and it doesn't sugarcoat the stereotypical behavior of the minorities either, or at least their entourage. The two protagonists are rather straight guys, and not influenced by their origins, they speak French very well, they work, they try to fit into society, there's Rachid, the Arab, played by Smaïn and the black man Denis, played by Pascal Legitimus, the third reel of the Unknowns trio. The two men weren't born yesterday, but while Denis is a young and idealistic painter coming from the West Indies, he didn't really grabbed the gravity of the situation, while Rachid had already developed "Rachid System", a version of 'System D'.
System D is a notion deeply rooted in French, the D referring to the slang word "Débrouille" meaning resourcefulness, like during the German Occupation: doing your best with what you've got at hands. French did that when Germans occupied them, Arabs and Blacks when they "occupied" France, fair trade. Fair trade but not the fairest methods; Rachid pushes the concept beyond some ethical appreciations as if the end justified the means, the end being getting the blonde girl in your bed. With the help of his two (white) friends, a big and small guy, conveniently named George and Junior (played by Patrick Braoudé and Jean-Paul Lillenfeld), he makes them fake aggression only to save the girl and get her in the bed. The way they always get more than the expected kicks despite the efforts is one of the film's most delightful running gags.
"An Arab saving a girl from two white guys, the world's gone crazy", is Rachid's conversation starter
but the funny thing is that he indirectly nourishes the stereotype of the sneaky and treacherous Arab from our point of view, indeed there's not one community that doesn't get its little slap in the face. But all the stereotypes that involve Blacks, Muslims and French are all dealt with lighthearted and satirical tone, the merit of the script (co-written with Braoudé) is to keep a fair balance, it doesn't speak against racism as much as it explores the struggle of minorities to get a flat or an apartment although they can provide it. A similar story could be made today about people looking for jobs today, it's all about trying to overcome that barrier of suspicion and resentment.But the film isn't just social commentary.
To thicken the plot, there's the character of Virginie (Julie Jezquel) who belongs to a bourgeois uptight family but is clearly more open-minded than her mother (Dominique Lavanant) and her stepfather (Martin Lamotte), two bigots played with charm and even a little something that invites for empathy, even the stepfather, as prejudiced as he is, can't help flirting with a girl dating a Black stud and even his tenderness with his stepdaughter is rather ambiguous. Things get also tricky between Rachid and Denis as they both fall in love with Virginie. It could have been a plot contrivance but it's not, it allows Rachid to be more motivated to help Denis and prevent him from becoming her roommate, it looks and smells like solidarity, but it's still "Rachid" system.
There's like a fresh air of hypocrisy all through the film, and everyone is part of it, there's a moment where George and Junior lamentably disguise as respectable marketing agents to buy an apartment but the stepfather is surprisingly patient and receptive as if not all the prejudices were negative. Under the directing of Serge Meynard (who won the César for best debut) it never confines into cynicism but in a funny, warm comedy and with a satirical wisdom of its own, concluding with the perfect little twist, or call it a punch line, that sums up the honesty about the film. The prejudices aren't meant to turn one community against another but to make us laugh.
Unfortunately, it didn't have the success it deserved, while it's better than many junk movies that grab viewers by the millions and play the 'community' card in a more attention-seeking flag-brandishing way. "The Black Eye" never preaches but it makes you think a lot, and laugh even more.