A Season in France is, as a film that tackles the fascistic yet mundane brutality inflicted on migrants in the western world, something you wish was a period piece, a relic of a crueller era from which we have recovered and for which we are sorry. Yet, unfortunately, it’s an effective portrait of our current times, perhaps even more pressing now than when it first premiered over 18 months ago at the Toronto Film Festival. It’s a hideous reality that makes for powerful, memorable cinema, yet with plentiful moments of compassion and kindness that keep it from being an overly grim slog.
Doting dad Abbas (Eriq Ebouaney) and his two kids Asma and Yacine (Aalayna Lys and Ibrahim Burana Darboe) have fled militia violence in the Central African Republic, but, despite this, are still facing an uphill battle to actually gain asylum from the French authorities. A former professor, Abbas is now degradingly shunted around Paris, trying to keep a brave face for the children but increasingly exhausted, both mentally and physically. His girlfriend and co-worker at the local market Carole (Sandrine Bonnaire) – herself a former immigrant who has since been nationalised in France – is trying to help, but the more basic human kindness she shows Abbas, the more potential legal trouble she is inviting.
It’s a maddening state of affairs, and director Mahamet-Saleh Haroun doesn’t shy away from imagery that calls to mind Nazi persecution, aggressive authorities searching a house for a cowering family who have done no one any harm. Ebouaney and the children do excellent jobs of conveying the stress and pain of this constant uncertainty and alienation, but Haroun also always makes room for more tender moments. Abbas’s off-key lullabies are wonderfully warm, as is the children’s emotional maturity when it comes to trying to keep their dad happy.
Haroun doesn’t limit himself to the sort of kitchen sink realism you often expect from social issue pieces like this, with some beautiful, surreal shots and genuinely unnerving nightmare sequences as Abbas follows grinning ghosts down winding corridors. A shocking act of violence punctuates the film, offering a look at how desperation and fury can drive someone to madness, frightening and harsh in the moment, but then deeply sad in retrospect. It’s a tough mix of emotions to keep watchable, but Haroun succeeds in doing so by foregrounding family togetherness even in the face of unfeeling institutional barbarity.