Variations dans les formes, les modalités et les langues en contact
Edited By Michael Abecassis and Gudrun Ledegen
Decentring France: Multilingualism and the French language in Philippe Lioret’s Welcome (2009) (Gemma King)
Treating multilingualism as both a dialogic and narrative focus, contemporary French multilingual cinema re-envisions the place of multilingualism in French society, interrogating the complex power dynamics at play in multilingual interaction. One such film which places the dynamics of language and power at its heart is Philippe Lioret’s 2009 Welcome, a film which calls into question the shifting role of multilingualism in France, and its impact on the role of the French language. Comparing Welcome’s radical remapping of France and the migrant trajectory to earlier representations of French immigration in films such as Le Thé au harem d’Archimède (Mehdi Charef, 1985), La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995) and especially L’Esquive (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2003), this chapter investigates how Welcome offers an alternative view of the migrant experience, casting its gaze across the English Channel and thus “decentring France”, along with the French language. Central to our argument are issues of border crossing and the boundaries of the French nation, which serve to include and exclude Welcome’s characters, both physically, through movement across borders (or entrapment within them) and symbolically, through language use. We will thus explore how Welcome’s representation of “boundaries, space, and territory [shape] the dynamic of cultural negotiation that fuels the film” (Murray Levine 2008 : 46–47).1 This chapter focuses in particular on the role of multilingualism ← 221 | 222 → in Welcome, exploring how the international impacts on the local in the context of contemporary French society, and how this dynamic is expressed through multiple language use.
A transnational film on both a narrative and production level, Welcome represents the contemporary French nation as a multilingual space. The film follows Simon, a newly divorced swimming instructor who is drawn into a complex relationship with a young Kurdish immigrant. Seventeen-year-old Bilal has walked thousands of kilometres from his native Kurdistan to rejoin his girlfriend, Mina, whose family has recently migrated to London. Stranded alone in the French port city of Calais, Bilal finds himself unable to hitch a ride through the tunnel, despite paying hundreds of euros to a people smuggler. In desperation, Bilal enlists Simon’s help, to learn to swim the Channel. While the personal connection between Simon and Bilal develops, and as Simon’s marriage irreparably disintegrates, the French immigration police close in on each of the protagonists, hunting down Bilal to sanction and deport him, and threatening Simon with legal action for sheltering and aiding an illegal immigrant, a crime in France.
Set mostly in Calais, Welcome portrays a hostile social landscape resistant to linguistic and cultural diversity, a dynamic which plays out as much in private spaces as in public ones. Despite this, the film portrays multilingualism as emblematic of a contemporary world defined by immigration and globalisation, to the dismay of the film’s many xenophobic and protectionist French characters. Michaël Abecassis has claimed that “the issues of ethnicity and plurilingualism in a multicultural society are central to contemporary French cinema” (Abecassis 2010 : 34) and Welcome is a powerful example of such foregrounding of linguistic diversity in film. In Welcome, the politics and practical implications of globalisation are at the forefront of social interaction and therefore language use. Indeed, in the film it is not only knowledge of French which is relevant to intercultural communication and indeed survival, but English and even Eastern languages typically associated with social marginalisation, such as Kurdish.
In its harsh portrayal of the migrant experience on French soil, Welcome represents the French nation as a site of conflict and crisis, as well as of cultural fluidity and linguistic exchange. The multiple languages which dominate the dialogue of the film (French, English, Kurdish and a few brief excerpts of Pashto) are symbolic in undermining the neatly defined “Frenchness” of Simon’s home, Bilal’s supposed position of cultural disenfranchisement, the French characters’ experience of their home nation and understandings of national territory and identity. As a result, Welcome posits even the most private of “French” places as a transnational, political and multilingual space. In this space, the once-monopolistic place of the French language is called into question. As Paul Bandia explains in his analysis of multilingual cinema, Welcome undermines the very “Frenchness” of French film:
As a result of the co-existence of these languages, the multilingual text is located in-between languages, never entirely settled in one or the other language, constituting what one might call a hybridized text in a perpetual state of translation. (Bandia 2008 : 168)
It is significant that Simon and Bilal’s relationship, and their respective interest to the Calais immigration police, subsequently becomes the central focus of the film’s narrative, in which language is a key element. Through this relationship,
Welcome examines the negotiation of linguistic territories and suggests that [the film offers] a challenge to conventional assumptions about linguistic assimilation and, through language, an alternative to the fraught assumptions of migrant relationships as those between host and guest. (Smith 2012 : 76)
Indeed, Simon’s literal role as host to Bilal in his own home brings Smith’s host-guest dynamic, depicted more broadly in the film’s portrayal of France as (unwilling) host and immigrant as (undesired) guest, sharply into focus. As we shall see, the multiple transnational forces pulling at the fabric of the once closed-minded Simon’s quintessentially “French” world are simultaneously embodied in the film’s representation of place and language.
← 223 | 224 → From a promotion and reception studies standpoint, it can be extremely interesting to observe one of the main trailers for the film, for its portrayal of Welcome as a fundamentally, if paradoxically, French and yet multicultural film. The trailer, released in both Francophone and Anglophone countries, opens with an image of a ship leaving the Calais port for England. Bilal is shown negotiating ways in which to leave France, struggling to secure shady, overpriced deals with smugglers, staring longingly across the grey expanse of water that separates him from England, and ultimately training to swim the Channel. There is talk of Iraq, of Kurdistan, of London. Simon’s apartment is shown being penetrated by xenophobic neighbours and suspicious immigration police. The events portrayed are at once personal and political. And the final image is of Bilal in the water itself, desperate to reach English shores. Accompanying all these images is dialogue in three languages, and both of the film’s protagonists are shown speaking in more than one language each (Simon in French and English, Bilal in Kurdish and English), all in the space of a minute and a half.
In a rare and noteworthy move, this trailer presents Welcome from the outset as a fundamentally multilingual product, marking the film’s language diversity as a key element of its promotion. Yet it does so while also promoting the film as “French”. Thus, despite the superimposed text, accompanying a number of festival award logos, proclaiming Welcome as “the most celebrated French film of the year”, the simplicity of the film’s French label is persistently called into question in this brief clip. The film can be reasonably considered as French, due to its funding, production and filming location, and the nationalities of a large proportion of its cast and crew, but it is also proudly international, multicultural, transnational and multilingual. Indeed, Welcome’s dominant language is, unsurprisingly, French, but also, in almost equal measure, English. Through this foregrounding of English language use, the film’s position remains clear: in stark contrast to cinéma beur films of the late twentieth century, in which representations of immigration paint France as the ultimate destination and French as the ultimate linguistic prize, Welcome’s geographical, cultural and linguistic focus is elsewhere.
In fact, far from a passing or background language, English is central to Welcome. English becomes a lingua franca in the film not because of its political or social connotations, but because it is the linguistic common ← 224 | 225 → ground between two nationalities which do not share any direct historic links. The traditional immigration narrative in French film generally features a combination of protagonists from previous French colonies (namely North Africa), as well as a number of French characters. Thus French is the shared language and the lingua franca used. However, in Welcome, the immigrant in question has not found himself in France because it is the logical destination to take refuge in, due to colonial heritage and thus shared language. Born in Kurdistan, Bilal is fleeing the recent (and at the time of the film’s creation, current) Iraq war and is merely passing through France, in the hope of reaching his final destination: London. Thus English becomes the primary language of use in a location in which the lingua franca would traditionally be expected to be French.
In Welcome, English therefore becomes what Chris Wahl describes as “a common ground and a strange world” (Wahl 2005 : 3). English is a secondary language for all of the film’s characters, and is spoken in only one scene on Anglophone soil. And yet English is the only language understood by both the protagonists, and by almost every character in the film (including Mina and Simon’s [ex-] wife, Marion). English is “a strange world” in its disconnectedness from the characters’ cultural identities and origins, but a powerful “common ground” in its function as a shared means of communication. Indeed, English functions as a lingua franca and a useful egalitarian code where Kurdish and even French (indeed, any other language at any of the characters’ disposal) cannot:
For Lioret, English is a displaced language, with only the most tentative connections to territory, and it is on this condition that Bilal and Simon can use it to step out of their respective linguistic houses. (Smith 2012 : 79)
Thus English offers Simon and Bilal the opportunity to build a relationship despite the many fundamental differences and barriers which divide them. Alison Smith proposes the label “threshold language” (Smith 2012) to describe this use of a mutual second language; for both Simon and Bilal, English is a foreign yet comprehensible language, which allows them to interact meaningfully despite their myriad cultural and social differences. French does not offer this possibility; it is Simon’s native language, the language of the authorities which threaten Bilal, and a language the latter ← 225 | 226 → does not speak. English offers the only possibility for Simon and Bilal to communicate on an equal linguistic footing.
Indeed, almost unprecedentedly for a French film, the most linguistically competent character in Welcome is not the white native French-speaker Simon, but the adolescent Kurdish clandestine immigrant, Bilal. Bilal’s English is almost perfect where Simon’s is certainly competent, but more faltering. In conversations with other Kurdish characters, Bilal acts as an interpreter for Simon and other French characters. In fact, Bilal is the only character who actually acquires new language in the film: while he only manages a rudimentary grasp of French, towards the end of Welcome Bilal tries to communicate with Simon in his native language.
The positioning of trilingual Bilal as the character best adapted to his globalised environment evokes the work of Hamid Naficy, who has coined the term “accented cinema” to describe the contemporary phenomenon of films in which multilinguality “feeds into and feeds off the horizontality of our globalized world, where compatriot diasporic communities are in touch with each other laterally across the globe, instead of being focused on an exclusive binary and vertical exilic relationship between the former home country and the current homeland” (Naficy 2010: 15). In line with Naficy’s argument, Bilal’s linguistic openness and flexibility thus posit him as the film’s most progressive and best-adapted character; not merely its youngest, but also its most at home in the globalised, transnational universe that Simon initially tries to ignore, despite it having arrived at his very doorstep.
Both Bilal’s linguistic aptitude and the importance of English in the film can be observed in the scene in which Simon first invites Bilal into his home. One evening, Simon sees Bilal and his Kurdish friend Zoran wandering the streets and calls out to them in English: “where are you going? Come”. Zoran, who is a stranger to Simon and has a very limited understanding of English, hesitates. Bilal, who knows and understands Simon, turns to his friend and speaks in Kurdish. The two then approach Simon’s car. Bilal’s Kurdish speech is not subtitled in this scene, and therefore it is unclear to a non-Kurdish-speaking viewer whether his words contain an explanation of Simon’s trustworthiness, but it is clear that a translation is taking place for his practically monolingual friend.
In Simon’s apartment, as the three men enjoy a meal of beer and pizza, Bilal is called upon to act as interpreter. At one point, Simon asks Zoran, ← 226 | 227 → in English, how he plans to find a job in England. Zoran catches the word “job” and responds “a job? Yes”, then turns to Bilal and speaks in (unsubtitled) Kurdish. Bilal translates for Simon (and the non-Kurdish-speaking audience): “his brother has a job at a supermarket in London. He can get a job for him too”. Unable to communicate beyond a couple of words in either English or French, Zoran is certainly at a linguistic disadvantage, yet can rely on Bilal’s English skills to translate for him. Simon, however, has no such translator for his French-language dialogue. At a number of emotional moments during Bilal and Zoran’s stay, Simon lapses into French, despite neither guest understanding him. Indeed, at one point Simon shouts at Zoran, in rapid-fire French, to get away from him, with no attempt at translation into English, for Bilal to translate in turn into Kurdish. Zoran reacts heatedly in Kurdish, yet due to the lack of bridging English-language dialogue, Bilal is unable to mediate the men’s altercation. It is one of the film’s most hostile moments, and one of the only situations in which the characters fail entirely to communicate meaningfully with each other.
These scenes include the most diverse range of linguistic backgrounds to be found in the film: a monolingual Kurdish speaker, a bilingual Kurdish and English speaker and a bilingual English and French speaker. Between Bilal and Zoran, Kurdish is a familiar and shared language. Between Bilal and Simon, English is a functional, if mutually secondary, means of communication. Simon, however, is alone in his understanding of French. As a result, despite these scenes being primarily set in Simon’s private Calais home, and despite the limited cultural capital of a marginalised language such as Kurdish in French society, French is the least useful, and indeed the most destructive, language at play. If Simon were not also conversant in English, he would not be able to communicate with either of his guests. And Bilal, with his fluency in both Kurdish and English, is the only character capable of fully navigating the complex, multicultural situation in which the three characters find themselves.2
← 227 | 228 → Previous transnational French cinema, from cinéma beur to the postcolonial cinema of filmmakers such as Claire Denis, has engaged on many levels with issues of multiculturalism: cultural isolation, social fracture, racism, integration, exile, intergenerational conflict, delinquency, violence, unemployment etc. At the heart of many transnational films lies a fundamental interest in issues of culture and power. Patricia Caillé captures this interest in her article “‘Cinemas of the Maghreb’: Reflections on the Transnational and Polycentric Dimensions of Regional Cinema”:
The transnational enables us to interrogate relationships of power and domination in a digital and post-industrial age, at a time when the accrued circulation of cultural commodities and people (either forced or voluntary) affects the terms of the polarity between nation and migration. (Caillé 2013 : 242)
However, throughout the twentieth century these issues were largely explored monolingually. Language is depicted as a differentiating factor, a means of identification and especially as a system of belonging in films like La Haine, but generally only in French: cultural and social fracture is explored not through multilingualism, but through linguistic variations within French, such as verlan and argot. If foreign languages are included in the dialogue, it is often in the background (rendered devoid of semantic meaning through a lack of subtitles) or passing words or phrases (which Chris Wahl terms “postcarding” [Wahl 2005 : 1] giving a film a multilingual “flavour” without exploring multilingualism in any real depth). Welcome sits in stark contrast to these earlier films, in which language diversity plays a background role. For in Welcome, many of the key scenes in which characters find themselves in various states of social and cultural conflict take place in and around language: through interpreting, code switching and language learning.
In fact, it is significant that Simon’s (ex-) wife Marion, the film’s most culturally open-minded French character, is a primary school English teacher. Marion also uses English nightly in her interaction with the immigrants camping near the docks, as she runs a soup kitchen. While she is hesitant to support Simon’s sheltering of Bilal and his friend Zoran, as she knows Simon could be arrested for doing so, Marion is constantly posited as the most “welcoming” of all Welcome’s characters. She not only feeds ← 228 | 229 → Calais’ immigrant population, but stands up for them when they are persecuted, as when they are refused entry to the local supermarket she and Simon are shopping in. There is every suggestion that Simon, desperate to win Marion back, even embarks on his relationship with Bilal as a means to impress her. While given comparatively little screen time, Marion is a catalyst for many of the film’s events, and is often posited as its moral compass. It is thus significant that she is so clearly associated with foreign (specifically English) language use throughout the film.
Additionally, the film’s key resolution scene also takes place in Smith’s “threshold language”; following Bilal’s drowning, the Kurdish Mina and the French Simon meet on foreign soil (London) and communicate in a second language (English). Despite each being displaced from their home, not speaking in their mother tongue and being complete strangers to one another, Mina and Simon can begin to resolve some of the film’s most painful details. Mina is assured of Bilal’s devotion to her and informed of his plans to swim the Channel to reach her and his ultimate failure to do so. Simon is able to share his loss with the only other person he knows of who feels deeply for Bilal. And the film’s recurrent motif of the wedding ring, constantly lost, rejected and refused, finally finds its home in Mina, despite the impossibility of its purpose being realised. While steeped in grief, this scene between Simon and Mina is the film’s sole moment of closure for either of the two characters. In this crucial moment, French has no place, and indeed no power to soothe either Mina or Simon. Unalike in almost every sense, the two characters’ common knowledge of English is essential to their ability to achieve this closure at all.
Welcome’s mise en scène is dominated by a number of loaded and symbolic settings (the swimming pool, the beach, the soup kitchen, the refugee shanties which the French characters refer to hauntingly as la jungle) and ← 229 | 230 → not least the supposedly private space of Simon’s apartment, where he lives alone following his marriage breakdown. The apartment is the site of many of the film’s key scenes of conflict, confrontation and change. These range from Simon’s initial bonding with Bilal to violent confrontation when Zoran steals Simon’s coveted Olympic medal. From arguments with Simon’s xenophobic neighbour, the owner of the terribly ironic “Welcome” mat from which the film takes its name, to heated altercations with the police during their unsolicited visit in search of Bilal. As the film progresses, the conflicts and character evolutions that take place within the confines of Simon’s apartment draw him further away from an insular private life, and open him up to encountering a multitude of individuals, world views, cultures and languages. In other words, mimicking the film’s trajectory more broadly, the local site of the French home becomes increasingly defined by the global, the foreign and the unknown.
Likewise, the broader location of the city of Calais is symbolic. Much like the Western French port city settings of such comparable contemporary French films as Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki, 2011, set in Le Havre) or Ma part du gâteau (Cédric Klapisch, 2011, set in Dunkerque), the space in which Welcome’s story unfolds is perched on the perimeter of the French territory. Situated on the shores of the English Channel, equipped with ports, ferries and an entry point into the subterranean tunnel to England, Calais is in essence a place of passage, migration and flow, particularly the flow of peoples:
It is as well to remember that [this] linguistic landscape [is] negotiated, and negotiated, almost certainly, to play on deeply anchored cross-Channel rivalries, as well as observations on migrant flows. (Smith 2012 : 87)
Indeed, it could be said that the entire film revolves around characters in a state of flux or transition. Bilal and his fellow migrants are in a constant state of migration, homelessness, border-crossing and uprootedness. On a more symbolic level, Simon and Marion also find themselves in an in-between state of relationship breakdown; moving house, splitting belongings and finalising their divorce. Even Simon’s job, which leads Bilal to approach ← 230 | 231 → him in the first place, is centred on movement, through the act of swimming (although it is Bilal who transforms the stagnant repetitiveness of lap swimming [a movement which ultimately goes nowhere] into a means of physical border-crossing, of transport).
Thus Welcome is characterised by movement, but also by the inability to move. Just like the paperless protagonist of Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche’s 2001 Wesh-wesh, qu’est-ce qui se passe? Kamel, the French nation and its rigid immigration policy serve to trap Bilal within its borders. Murray Levine says of Wesh-wesh, in a description equally applicable to Welcome:
These visual elements reinforce the prison-like character that the cité holds for Kamel, who cannot work or circulate freely because of his illegal status. (Murray Levine 2008 : 50)
This is one of the key aspects which differentiate Welcome from so many other films, contemporary or otherwise, which depict immigration; France is not the desired final destination. France has not been chosen as the immigration destination for its shared language, historical familiarity or colonial ties with the country of origin of the migrant. In fact, Bilal doesn’t want to be in France at all. France is merely one of the many countries he passes through on his way to England; the only thing that differentiates it from these other countries is that, because of the Channel, he is stuck there. Welcome belongs to a group of contemporary films which explore this border-crossing conundrum, which Alison Smith describes as “the interest in representing on film that part of France, especially the margins of France – the … coast and the outskirts of the large cities – that is increasingly a cultural contact zone” (Smith 2012 : 76).
In so many French films about the migrant experience, making it to France is the objective of the migrant (although, of course, upon their arrival, the glowing ideal of France is generally deconstructed). In Welcome, the opposite is the case: France serves only to delay and jeopardise Bilal’s migration. This revises the geographical and symbolic mapping of the migrant trajectory, shifting the migrant’s focus elsewhere, decentring France and situating it within the context of a broader, transnational setting.
In light of this (re)mapping, the city in which Welcome takes place is again significant. While London leaves its mark on the film in a number of ways (such as linguistic influence, the scenes filmed there and Bilal’s desperation to reach it), Paris is completely absent from Welcome. Instead, the film is literally situated in an exit point from the country. In this way, Calais is representative of the role of France itself in the film: a halfway point, a transcultural space, a place of transit rather than a destination, representative of movement and uprootedness. Calais is shown to be what Marc Augé sees as a “non-lieu”: a “non-place”, or at least an in-between space devoid of identity (Augé 1992). The very nature of Calais as a place of transit and impermanence mirrors the plight of the immigrants trapped there, and of the role of France in Bilal’s journey. This paints the migrant experience in a radically different way to the majority of preceding French films about immigration. Let us turn now to an examination of these earlier films in order to understand the extent to which Welcome remaps the migrant trajectory in France, and revises the role of the French language in the migrant experience.
In the vast majority of French films which explore immigration, France is typically oriented as the migrant’s focus, as the locus of Western civilisation, the centre of the civilised world. Even when characters undertake pilgrimages or cultural voyages, such as in Tony Gatlif’s Exils (2004), they begin their journey from Paris, and usually return to it. No matter how negatively France may be depicted in any of these films, and no matter how disillusioned the migrant characters may become about their host country, it is significant that France and especially Paris are still mapped as centre. Upon arrival, the migrants in these films, and their second-generation children, almost always face a harsh and disillusioning reality. Yet these first-generation characters have nonetheless fought to make it to France; they have not settled in France by chance, by force or as a last resort. France is the object of their migration and their struggles to found a new life. This mapping reinforces Alec Hargreaves and Leslie Kealhofer’s claim that traditional French films about immigration underline how the ← 232 | 233 → “protagonists are rooted in the dominant language and cultural norms of France” (Hargreaves and Kealhofer 2010, pp. 75–76), no matter their struggles with daily life and integration.
A particularly prominent example of a North African protagonist’s desire to reach or even idolisation of France is Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2001 La Faute à Ronsard, which revolves around the protagonist Jallel’s desire to get to France, especially Paris, and to stay there. Jallel pushes a half-French friend into agreeing to marry him for citizenship, and is thrown into a deep depression when the arrangement falls through. Throughout the film, despite his Tunisian origins and his lowly social status in France, Jallel chooses to surround himself with what he considers to be hallmarks of French culture (literature, music, art), even attempting to make a livelihood from them, performing Voltaire poems in the metro. He cultivates a relationship (albeit a dysfunctional one) with a French girl. And the film’s ultimate tragedy is Jallel’s capture by French immigration police, signalling his inevitable deportation.
Likewise, films like Inch’Allah Dimanche (Yamina Benguigui 2001), Code inconnu: récits incomplets de divers voyages (Michael Haneke 2001) and Wesh-wesh, qu’est-ce qui se passe? are filled with characters originating from Northern African or Eastern European countries, who have endured all manner of physical, social and cultural upheavals to make their way to France and attempt to build a life and a family in what is invariably presented to them as a land of opportunity. Even in so recent a film as Costa-Gavras’ 2008 Eden à l’ouest, the protagonist Elias risks his life on multiple occasions to reach France which, as the title suggests, he imagines is a sort of paradise on earth. In these films, the ideal of France is invariably unravelled upon the characters’ arrival there. Nonetheless, France is almost always presented to these characters as the focus of their migratory movements and the ultimate destination in which to settle and prosper.
Subsequently, the French language’s place in this mapping of the migrant trajectory is a dominant one. These films constantly underline the essentiality of knowing French, positing the migrant’s learning of French as a rite of passage on the path to successful cultural integration. They also show the inevitable isolation and disadvantage of not learning French, a common fate for many first-generation women, who are so often confined ← 233 | 234 → to the domestic sphere and cut off from French civilisation (Inch’Allah Dimanche). The differences between first-generation parents, comparatively marginalised and disempowered in French society, and their more integrated children, are often crystallised in the latter’s superior knowledge of French, and related conflicts brought to a head through their rejection of their parents’ native language in favour of their birth country’s tongue. As Carrie Tarr explains, in films such as “Le Thé au harem d’Archimède language is a source of conflict and misunderstanding” (Tarr 2005 : 56), placing French in the clear position of a more socially and cultural valuable language.
In these films, which are almost always set in the banlieue (the low socio-economic housing commission estates on the outskirts of the city), Paris is invariably mapped as centre. The narrative and cinematographic make-up of many such films constructs the relationship between the banlieue periphery and the metropolitan centre as an evocation of inner and outer, belonging and not belonging, French and Other. In this environment, the dividing line of the périphérique, once a wall and now a bustling highway, is symbolic as a physical and cultural barrier between the city and the banlieue, positioning the inhabitants of the banlieue as unintegrated, not belonging, excluded. Most films de banlieue construct this binary not merely through cinematographically representing the banlieue as an external space in contrast to Paris, but in showing its characters’ awareness of this space. These films do not locate themselves solely in the environment of the banlieue, but their banlieue-inhabiting protagonists physically travel into the city’s nucleus, where their outsider status is literally, and often violently, confirmed.
Perhaps the most prominent example of this is Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 La Haine. In the film, the three main characters Vinz, Saïd and Hubert travel by RER train into central Paris, where they find themselves alienated by their bourgeois surrounds, including a 7th arrondissement apartment and a pretentious gallery event. While the protagonists are certainly free to enter the city, they are consistently made to feel as though they do not belong. This confirms their othering even more than their exile in the far reaches of the city’s commission flats. And in failing to jack a car and in missing the last RER, they are effectively trapped in the city overnight. They ← 234 | 235 → can enter, but cannot leave (and cannot rest, confined to the hostile Paris streets). Yet despite the hostility of the city centre, Paris remains an ideal, epitomised in the image of the three men looking out over the cityscape at the silhouette of the Eiffel Tower, as well as the billboard posted along the train line promising that “Le Monde est à vous” (“the world is yours”).
No discussion of the evolution of the migrant trajectory in French film, moving from the binary dynamic of beur and banlieue cinema to the radical decentring of France which occurs in Welcome, would be complete without acknowledging the progress made in L’Esquive. Like Le Thé au harem d’Archimède and La Haine, L’Esquive is a film which has found itself categorised as a film de banlieue: the film is situated in one of the notorious commission flats in Paris’ north-east region of Seine St Denis, the film deals with some typical issues characteristic of banlieue narratives (delinquency, multiculturalism, police aggression) and the dialogue is deeply marked by youthful banlieue-centric language (for example, use of the reversed-French code verlan, or the Arabic-infused variation of French known as tchatche).
Yet L’Esquive differentiates itself from Le Thé and La Haine’s constructions of the banlieue/city centre binary in fundamental ways. For one, the characters never in fact leave the confines of the banlieue, and many of the scenes are shot in outdoor surrounds, often in amphitheatres or parks rather than underpasses or car parks, avoiding the aura of oppression or claustrophobia which so characterise the mise en scène of traditional banlieue films. Likewise, there is no talk of the city or indeed the geographical reality beyond the banlieue; despite being only a few kilometres from Paris, the banlieue, not the city, becomes centre. This sets the mise en scène of the film de banlieue up for a radical update: as Vinay Swamy remarks, “Not all banlieue films seek to highlight these issues within an explicitly violent framework that supposedly characterizes the tension between the centre and the periphery” (Swamy 2007 : 58)
← 235 | 236 → There is still some travelling done in L’Esquive, yet it is Marivaux, not the film’s characters, who travels between the banlieue and the city. A traditional and culturally validated motif of “French-ness”, a symbol of French cultural hegemony, Marivaux is a sign of the mainstream French symbolic past, of a time before the banlieue and the cultural melting pot of contemporary France, associated with a language completely removed from the arena of verlan, tchatche, indeed even standard French. Marivaux’s 1730 play Le jeu de l’amour et du hasard permeates the film, as the characters prepare a performance of the play at their school. Not only do the characters accept and even embrace this symbol of Frenchness, they do so on their own turf. Therefore, while Marivaux is a key element of the film (and the play a mise en abîme of the story) Paris is not. The way in which L’Esquive thus understands and presents urban and suburban space foreshadows Welcome, and reflects what Alison Murray Levine writes about film space and borders:
An aesthetic and thematic shift [is taking place] in recent beur cinema toward the portrayal of borders as permeable boundaries and of formerly excluded spaces such as the banlieues as sites of dynamic cultural exchange. (Murray Levine 2008 : 43)
While there is no explicit Arabic or other foreign languages spoken in the film, it is important that several language variations coexist within L’Esquive: the elevated and antiquated French of Marivaux’s play, the standard, “correct” French of classroom discussion and the street French, laced with verlan and tchatche, spoken among the young characters. Verlan and similar slang registers are present in many films, from La Haine to Laurent Cantet’s Entre les murs (2008), yet while such films certainly acknowledge the widespread use and significance of these codes, they often also focus on their social inferiority. For example, in Entre les murs, the teacher Monsieur Marin forbids the use of verlan in the classroom, saying he will only communicate with people speaking “French”: “en français, s’il te plaît”, denying verlan’s place in any part of the French language at all.
Yet street language is not imbued with the same connotations of linguistic hierarchy in L’Esquive; there is no moment when a standard French-speaking character criticises or forbids such language use. Indeed, each register of language used in L’Esquive is treated (by the film and the ← 236 | 237 → characters) as equally relevant and valid in its own context. Vinay Swamy suggests that L’Esquive “sets itself apart in the way it reframes the relationship between high and popular culture through its explicit and very conscious use of language” (Swamy 2007 : 58), a relationship entirely absent from films like La Haine, in which slang only serves to disconnect and disenfranchise the banlieue-dwelling characters from French society.
In fact, while language and power are crucial themes in L’Esquive, the linguistic power in the film lies not in the mastery of a culturally validated language such as Marivaux’s French, or even “correct” standard French, but in the ability to move convincingly between the numerous cultural spheres and their respective language uses with verve. For example, the protagonist Krimo is almost completely incompetent at switching between language forms. On the other hand, the film’s female lead, Lydia is somewhat of an arch linguist in her ability to master the three registers involved, moving effortlessly between them and employing them in the appropriate circumstances. As Dana Strand writes,
[Lydia embodies] the fluid passage among linguistic registers so effectively carried out by at least some of the young people in L’Esquive … the cast of unlikely characters glides smoothly from the rarefied linguistic expression of eighteenth-century high culture to their graphically gritty slang, thus calling into question the historically sacrosanct place accorded to the French language in the construction of national identity (Strand 2009 : 264–265)
Not only does Lydia find the language of Marivaux natural to slip into, but she is also capable of switching immediately into street language to communicate with her friends. Lydia is in fact French, but employs Arabic-infused phrases such as “Inch’Allah”, where other characters do not, to assert the fact of her belonging to the multicultural banlieue community. Indeed, the film’s ultimate image is of Lydia performing on stage, her voice the centre of attention, while Krimo is exiled, on the other side of the theatre window, silently (and deafly) watching the performance play out in the distance. Here we clearly see an inner/outer binary, reminiscent of La Haine and its cinéma de banlieue predecessors, and it can of course not be ignored that Lydia is a French character performing in Marivaux French and Krimo a second-generation North African immigrant unable to express himself in ← 237 | 238 → the required language. Yet it is likewise extremely significant that the entire storyline plays out in the banlieue alone.
L’Esquive takes an important step in the direction of re-orienting the immigrant experience and the significance of France, and especially Paris, as centre, and ground zero for migration. Claudia Esposito echoes this in her article “Ronsard in the metro: Abdellatif Kechiche and the poetics of space” (2011), emphasising L’Esquive’s unique representation of (sub) urban space:
Kechiche’s films expand and enrich a debate around contemporary French national identity that takes shape, as several critics have demonstrated, around questions of language and space. (Esposito 2011 : 224)
L’Esquive’s understanding of the migrant’s cultural and linguistic experience provides a stark counterpoint to traditional, Eurocentric representations of the migrant trajectory. However, Welcome takes this re-orientation, indeed decentring, vastly further. Leaving Paris and its surrounds behind, perching its story on a literal exit point from France to the UK and infusing the film’s dialogue with an array of foreign languages, Welcome radically turns away from the French cultural nucleus, re-envisioning the traditional migrant journey and positing London, rather than Paris, as the migrant’s desired destination. As Dale Hudson writes:
Transpolitical spaces within transnational French cinemas offer opportunities for investigating the inequalities within this nationalist bundling of people, territory and politics, particularly around borders (Hudson 2011 : 113).
And Welcome places this notion at its core. Welcome belongs to a collection of films which interest scholars such as Carrie Tarr for “their representation of spatial and bodily border crossings” which in turn “expose the asymmetrical power relations between hosts and migrants, Western ← 238 | 239 → Europe and its others” (Tarr 2007 : 7). Yet France’s place in this relationship “between host and migrants, Western Europe and its others” is far from the monopolistic, dominant one of the twentieth-century immigration films explored in this chapter. France is but one nation among many participating in the complex, polycentric flow of peoples taking place in Welcome’s contemporary world.
This decentring of France in Bilal’s migrant trajectory also serves to decentre the French language. French is certainly an important language in Welcome, especially in conversations between Simon and other French characters (Marion, his co-workers, his neighbour and the police). French, however, is not the main language at play in any of the important scenes between French and migrant in the film; English is. In Welcome, it is not French which is key to Simon’s relationship with Bilal, to the events of Bilal’s journey across the Channel, nor to the everyday experience of the majority of clandestine immigrants represented in the film, who have originated from far beyond France and all wish to travel to England. Instead, while French proliferates throughout conversations between French characters in the film, it is English which dominates Welcome in relation to Bilal and Simon’s experience, the principal storyline and the film’s narrative and thematic focus. Likewise, in Bilal’s interaction with his fellow immigrants, and in his initial quest to reach English shores through smuggling, Kurdish and Pashto are of greater value to his negotiations than French.
The scope of the film thus extends beyond the centrality of France and situates it in a cosmopolitan and transnational world in which the reach of foreign nations not only impacts on the local Calais population, contributes to the Calais economy and geographically surrounds the city itself, but permeates the very fabric of the entire film: multicultural characters, constant talk of other countries (England, Iraq and Turkey), physical movement within and across borders and especially multilingual dialogue.
A film which engages deeply with contemporary issues of language, immigration and globalisation, Welcome represents its Calais environment as a site of cultural and linguistic diversity. In this environment, the integrity of the contained nation of France is eroded. The multiple languages which dominate the film’s dialogue (French, English, Kurdish and Pashto) are symbolic in questioning the “Frenchness” of its Calais location, positing ← 239 | 240 → it in a transnational, political and multilingual space. In these shifting and disintegrating spaces, the supremacy and dominance of the French language, both as language of the host country and prerequisite of the immigrant, is fundamentally undermined.
Abecassis, Michaël, 2010, “The Voices of Pre-War French Cinema: From Polyphony Towards Plurilingualism” in Berger Verena and Komori Miya (eds) Polyglot Cinema: Migration and Transcultural Narration in France, Italy, Portugal and Spain, Vienna, LIT Verlag, 33–48.
Augé, Marc, 1992, Non-lieux: introduction à une anthropologie de la surmodernité, Paris, Seuil.
Bandia, Paul, 2008, “Review: Fictionalising Translation and Multilingualism”, in Target, 20–1, 164–169.
Caillé, Patricia, 2013, “‘Cinemas of the Maghreb’: Reflections on the Transnational and Polycentric Dimensions of Regional Cinema”, in Studies in French Cinema, 13–3, 241–256.
Esposito, Claudia, 2011, “Ronsard in the Metro: Abdellatif Kechiche and the Poetics of Space”, in Studies in French Cinema, 11/3, 223–234.
Hudson, Dale, 2011, “Transpolitical Spaces in Transnational French Cinemas: Vampires and the Illusions of National Borders and Universal Citizenship”, in French Cultural Studies, 22/2, 111–126.
Murray Levine, Alison J., 2008, “Mapping Beur Cinema in the New Millennium”, in Journal of Film and Video, 3/4, 42–59.
Naficy, Hamid, 2010, “Multiplicity and Multiplexing in Today’s Cinemas: Diasporic Cinema, Art Cinema, and Mainstream Cinema” in Journal of Media Practice, 11/1, 11–20.
Smith, Alison, 2012, “Crossing the Linguistic Threshold: Language, Hospitality and Linguistic Exchange in Philippe Lioret’s Welcome and Rachid Bouchareb’s London River”, in Studies in French Cinema, 13/1, 75–90.
Strand, Dana, 2009, “Etre et parler: Being and speaking French in Abdellatif Kechiche’s L’Esquive (2004) and Laurent Cantet’s Entre les murs (2008)”, in Studies in French Cinema, 9/3, 259–272.
Tarr, Carrie, 2005, Reframing Difference: Beur and Banlieue Filmmaking in France, Manchester, Manchester University Press.
Ameur-Zaïmeche, Rabah, 2001, Wesh-wesh, qu’est-ce qui se passe?
Benguigui, Yamina, 2001, Inch’Allah Dimanche.
Cantet, Laurent, 2008, Entre les murs.
Charef, Mehdi, 1985, Le Thé au harem d’Archimède.
Chibane, Malik, 1994, Hexagone.
Gatlif, Tony, 2004, Exils.
Gavras, Cost, 2008, Eden à l’ouest.
Haneke, Michael, 2001, Code inconnu: récits incomplets de divers voyages.
Kassovitz, Matthieu, 1995, La Haine.
Kaurismäki, Aki, 2011, Le Havre.
Kechiche, Abdellatif, 2001, La Faute à Voltaire.
Kechiche, Abdellatif, 2003, L’Esquive.
Klapisch, Cédric, 2011, Ma part du gâteau.
1 Murray Levine refers here to Malik Chibane’s 1994 Hexagone, however her words are remarkably applicable to Welcome as well.
2 These street, car and apartment scenes span from 00:33:40–00:38:00. Welcome, Philippe Lioret, 2009. Actors: Vincent Lindon (Simon), Firat Ayverdi (Bilal), Selim Akgul (Zoran).