“Les Sauvages” – Not just who you think
by Neely Swanson
“Les Sauvages (The Savages),” the French series premiering on “Topic” (topic.com), a new streaming platform, is a not to be missed political thriller that will put you on high-alert, not just emotionally but also intellectually. “Les Sauvages,” a mini-series in 6 parts, tackles nothing less than the political significance and intersection of racism, religion, nationalism, terrorism, and family. Rarely is one of these topics tackled well, but in this case the filmmakers get all of it and get it all right.
And who are these film makers? To begin with there is Rebecca Zlotowski, a writer-director who has deservedly attracted attention of late. Her outstanding film “The Easy Girl” recently premiered on Netflix and has now been followed in the U.S. by this stunning mini-series that was first shown in France in the Fall of 2019. Writing the series with her is Sabri Louatah who wrote the books upon which this series is based. None of this could be more prescient.
Contemporary France is in the throes of an historic election for President of the Republic. On one side is the right wing candidate Noyer and on the other is candidate Chaouch. Chaouch is not a life-long politician, as a matter of fact he’s spent the last several years as a professor at Harvard. More significantly, however, he is a Frenchman of Algerian descent, the first ever to run for this office. Historically this election couldn’t be more important. A choice between an anti-immigration, French nationalist and a Frenchman who has run on a platform of unification, acceptance, and hope. (Sound familiar?) Unflappable and calm, Chaouch will let the electorate decide. His daughter Jasmine has run his campaign aggressively and his wife Daria has been behind the scenes praying he will lose.
Jasmine, living a high profile life as the daughter and campaign manager of her father, is engaged to Fouad, known to the public as Dr. Frank, his character on a popular soap opera. They are a golden couple. Fouad is from St. Etienne, a working class town in the southeast. He has increasingly distanced himself from his family as his brother Nazir, an allegedly religious man serving prison time for hate speech, gains more influence over their mother Dounia, brother Slim, and other cousins, particularly Krim, an aspiring classical pianist, and Louna, his quiet, contemplative sister.
Fouad is called home for the wedding of his brother Slim and agrees to go because Nazir is still in prison. It is a source of conflict for Fouad that he has not introduced his family to Jasmine; Jasmine is concerned as well that she has not met his family. At the last minute he agrees to take her to the wedding despite the fact that it is the day before the election. All does not go as planned, as these things never do. Dounia has recently become religious, regularly attending the Mosque, and is devoted to Nazir. What she kept from Fouad was that Nazir has applied for compassionate leave to attend the wedding and his appearance, surrounded and supported by his radical followers, upends and politicizes the event. Fouad, clearly, is on the outside; his celebrity has no currency here. He and Jasmine leave early from the festivities and agree to take Krim with them as his conservatory audition in Paris is the next day, election day.
It is not a spoiler alert to reveal that Chaouch wins the election by a margin of several percentage points. The very personification of cool, calm, and collected, he greets the public and goes into the crowd. And it is here that everything goes very terrifyingly wrong. There is an assassination attempt from an unlikely source and the president is on life support. Riots erupt along with political chaos, and constitutional crises. This is not quite the spoiler it might seem to be as you never kill the star, at least not in the first episode. Synopsizing the ensuing episodes would reveal too much and spoil the stomach-tightening events that follow. Suffice it to say that besides the political intrigue, this is also a story of the need for redemption as many of the characters receive justifiable punishment for lapses in judgment.
But instead, let’s talk about the terrific cast that Zlotowski assembled. First and foremost is Roschdy Zem, an incredibly accomplished actor of amazing range whose career has spanned almost thirty years in film and television. He is what the French would call a “joli-laid” (handsome-ugly)—they considered Charles Bronson to be a joli-laid. Zem’s large nose, furrowed brow, and high forehead would seem to preclude him as a lead (at least by American standards) and yet his deep, soulful, haunting eyes and his full lips draw you in and see something beyond physical beauty. It is his remarkable ability, possessed by only a few great actors, to convey the deepest meaning of a scene without speaking a word. It is assuredly no mistake that Zem channeled the carriage and thoughtfulness of Obama when portraying Chaouch. It is a heartbreaking reminder of the hope and promise that we once felt. Zem is the kind of actor who is much more than the sum of his parts and as an audience watching him you understand the definition of empathy.
The other actors are excellent as well. Sofiane Zermani as Nazir is the snake in the Garden of Eden, except that St. Etienne is no garden and certainly not Eden. Looking into his handsome, charismatic face you feel more than a shiver. You are looking at evil personified. Zermani, better known in France as a rapper, has a fluidity of motion that would be beautiful if it weren’t so chilling.
Souheila Yacoub’s Jasmine, daughter of Chaouch and his campaign manager, is complex. She represents the candidate for acceptance and social justice but her desire for power and influence often overrides her father’s idealism. Her undisguised personal ambition makes her necessarily, from the series’ point of view, unsympathetic much of the time.
Dali Benssalah, Fouad, has the unenviable task of driving the story elements together to their finish. He is both catalyst, antagonist, and collaborator. He does, unfortunately, sometimes embody the occasional holes in the script. Luckily these are minor and easily forgotten and Benssalah forges ahead as the character of Fouad gradually understands the forces behind some of the nefarious plots to subvert justice and understanding. He, Zem, and Zermani are all of French North African origin, all having been born in France and all having lived the kind of prejudice that the French reserve for North Africans regardless of birth or citizenship; much like what Americans rain down on African Americans.
Others of note are Marina Foïs who plays Marion, the secret service agent who must redeem herself; Farida Rahouadj in the difficult and largely unsympathetic role of Dounia, mother to Fouad, Slim, and Nazir, who has succumbed to the manipulations of Nazir and turns a blind eye to the conflicts around her.
Zlotowski has an unerring eye for the intersecting complexities of family. Through her lens, it’s all about family whether it is national politics, local politics, religion, or blood relations, and she sees them in an almost non-judgmental way, letting us bring our own prejudices and emotions to bear. She is truly remarkable as a director and I’m especially happy to have also seen “The Easy Girl,” the coming of age story of a young girl of working class origin in Cannes, a decidedly non-working class city. Never mentioned, never highlighted, never a part of the actual story, although clearly an undercurrent, is that her French protagonists were of North African origin. She didn’t have to say or do a thing. They were just kids, lost or looking to find a way where, knowingly or unknowingly, the path might be strewn with obstacles that exceeded their socio-economic status.
“Les Sauvages” has entered the lexicon at a particularly difficult and prescient moment when French right wing politics have begun to use the term “ensauvagement” as their battle cry against minorities and immigrants in France and the detrimental, wild, uncivilized behavior that brings down “their” France. Louatah understood that “savages” are found in every corner of life from rich and powerful to the poor and disenfranchised. This series illuminates his premise beautifully.
In French with English subtitles.
Do not miss this series, premiering Thursday September 17. Try it during the free trial you can find on http://topic.com/.