” TO every guy killed, we kill! We’re going to show them what security is. We have a plan: we catch a condé, and then they will start listening to us. » Excerpts from the battle cries of Karim (Sami Slimane), one of the three brothers in the shock film Romain Gavras, Athena, which plunges us into the heart of a Parisian city on fire after the death of a child in which the police are implicated – without proof.
Co-written by Ladj Ly, director of another shocking film, Wretched, and by Elias Belkeddar, Athena (the goddess of war), which is released this September 23 on Netflix, unfolds like an implacable tragedy where the gods are absent, but not fate and its procession of misfortunes. Romain Gavras could have titled this political rant State of siege, in reference to the famous film by his father Costa, made 50 years ago with Yves Montand and Jacques Weber. It recalls the 2005 riots in Clichy-sous-Bois and is in line with films on violence in housing estates such as North ferry, My 6-T is going to crack-er or, further, to Hate. For the rest, he might see his film as a Greek tragedy, but we are still far fromAeschylus and D’Euripides.
From the first images – the ransacking of a police station and the theft of weapons –, filmed in a long twelve-minute sequence shot at eye level, we are embarked, in real time, at the heart of a gigantic chaos where two camps confront each other as in a war of trenches: the CRS arranged like a Roman legion, shield, truncheon and tear gas canisters in hand and the young people who throw all kinds of objects and projectiles at them, Molotov cocktails, burning cars, fireworks and mortar fire.
The shock is of incredible violence, reinforced by a martial soundtrack (theme of city kings composed by the late DJ Mehdi) and a hysterical staging, punctuated by blows, screams, smoke. The confusion is general and the tension at its height when a young CRS is taken hostage. We are dizzy, even uneasy, faced with this frightening spectacle, always the same, which resonates like the reports broadcast by the continuous news channels. With their permanent direct, they serve here as a benchmark for the rioters. Ditto with the laptops essential to communicate.
Stylish and eye-catching
Is it still fiction when we restore such a raw daily reality, which has become familiar to millions of French people? We can clearly see that Romain Gravas has a culture of stylized and flashy images, like his music videos for rappers Jay-Z and Kanye West (No Church in the Wild in 2012) or Justice. We are treated there to a kind of psychedelic nightmare of urban chaos.
But, beyond the violence exposed in a brutal and complacent way, Athena tells a fratricidal family story that leaves little room for reflection. Tragedy is on the way for these three brothers who do not understand each other and carry within them this destructive force that nothing can oppose: Abdel (Dali Benssalah), the soldier returned from Mali, tries to calm Karim (Sami Slimane) who advocates confrontation with the police and wants to burn everything, unlike the dealer Moktar (Ouassini Embarek) who above all wants to get his kilos of drugs out of the city. Three remarkable and terrifying actors to which must be added Anthony Bajon (CRS Jérôme) and Alexis Manenti (Vincent).
So much for the form with an almost secondary intrigue which propels the action like an infernal machine which one guesses that the outcome will be unfortunate and will plunge the protagonists into a kind of suicidal stupefaction. It’s punchy, immersive cinema that leaves the viewer KO, without too many alternatives. Filmed in Imax (ideal for the cinema, but not on a television or computer screen), broadcast on Netflix and prohibited for children under 16.
Gavras plays with matches
For the background, Romain Gavras, who claims to be “inside a spark that will set the nation ablaze”, is playing with matches by brandishing with a certain casualness the banner of rebellion and chaos. A prophet of doom who holds up our own mirror, that of a slow decomposition of the social and fraternal bond, the foundation of the republican pact. Seeing a television screen on which is written “Civil War in France”, with military trucks in the background, has an easy little effect to send shivers down the spine, to frighten the bourgeois.
Arsonist firefighter, Romain Gavras also does not fail to designate the ideal culprits at the end: an amateur video shows fake police officers, necessarily from the far right, beating a kid on the ground. What justify a posteriori this conflagration of violence but not to fill this great vacuum which opens in front of us vis-a-vis the ambient nihilism. All that for this ? What is the message ? Trigger yet another controversy that will promote the film?
Athena locks itself in this ambiguity inherent to the political film which turns against its author engaged on a slippery ground and which has nothing to say to us. All that remains is an explosion of meaningless images, smoke bombs and special effects.
Athenaavailable from Friday, September 23 on Netflix.