Perhaps one would not expect such a social-realist film as “Une Vie meilleure” (A Better Life) from established French auteur Cedric Kahn, who has come to the attention of international audiences with his intense thrillers such as “L’ennui” and “Red Lights”; nevertheless, Kahn proves his directorial talent once again with a film that is much more Ken Loach territory as opposed to the suburbs of Paris.
Actor Guillaume Canet (who also directs on the side) displays a brilliant performance as a desperate, ordinary man who is trying to make it big in the world but is failing miserably. The misery in this film will be hard to handle for most, but this is life, and his character Yann’s story is not so different from others who fail at succeeding in small businesses. Hollywood has gotten us too used to rags-to-riches stories from its land of meritocracy and as such, we have come to forget that unfortunately not everyone who delivers their best effort gets their golden ticket at the end, especially in a time of recession.
Yann is a Parisian cook who is in between jobs. One day after a sour job interview he meets the beautiful Lebanese waitress Nadia (Leila Bekhti), and they soon fall in love. Luckily we don’t see any montage sequences of their budding relationship and jump directly to the maturity of their love. Nadia is a single mother of an 8-year-old boy, Slimane (Slimane Khettabi), and Yann grows to love the boy himself.
During a peaceful day around a lake an hour away from the city, the newly formed family spots a sweet but run-down cottage. Yann and Nadia impulsively decide to buy the property and transform it into the restaurant of their dreams. They don’t have enough funds so they apply for numerous bank loans. They buy the place but unfortunately realize that they are in over their heads. On top of that, the renovation of the building does not get approved by restaurant inspectors so they must postpone the opening of the place for another year.
Their financial troubles build up exponentially, hitting the couple like an emotional storm. It isn’t long before Yann and Nadia turn vicious towards each other, much like many people who have a hard time dealing with turmoil. Suddenly Nadia decides to take off for Canada for a better job and leaves Slimane with Yann.
The second half of the film focuses on man and boy’s unpredictable dynamics as Yann finds himself more in debt and they have to move to the slums of the city. They don’t hear from Nadia for months. At one point you wonder whether anything good will happen to these people, really. It’s just one disappointment and mistake after another as the realities of life throw unimaginable trials in front of them. Surely there will be a point of salvation, but the how and when will be shown to us in an unexpected manner, even if it entails a too-hopeful ending for such a sorrowful story.
Director Kahn shoots with gusto and intensity in narrow places throughout a grim and relentlessly cruel Paris. But it is Kahn’s aptitude for two-shots that makes the film so effective. Of course the acting is superb on many levels, so it is the right decision to let the actors flow in their limited spaces of frustration and emotional turmoil.
The realistic portrayal of the disposition of the three underdog leads is not just a social and emotional spectrum of the modern individual but is also an incredibly just and precise illustration of how the economic circumstances of global capitalism take over lives. Perhaps there is too much emphasis on money, or actually the lack of it, in this story but it is exactly that point when one has a limited amount of cash for the rest of the month that we start questioning how we one can make it in this system while putting up a brave front. In a world where money is the only definitive commodity for survival, those without it find themselves in the most desperate of circumstances in which the fine line between being a free person and a slave is not so clear.
“Une Vie Meilleure” does not propose a better life for those who wish for one, but it most definitely reminds us that we should hold on to our dear ones and carefully assess the life we have without false dreams.