When Parisienne begins, we meet the beautiful Lina (Manal Issa), an eighteen-year-old freshman from Beirut, studying abroad in Paris. She’s eating dinner at her uncle’s house in the suburbs, the only connection to home she has in this strange country, when he attempts to rape her. She stops him, violently, before running out into the night in fear: penniless, possessionless, naive, and now homeless. By the end of the film, she’s become a sophisticated Parisienne, independent and strong-willed.
She depends on the kindness of strangers. When a girl in class loans her a pen on the first day of school, Lina swipes her purse, before thinking better of it: if she returns it, she might be able to get a place to sleep. She’s unable to tell anyone what happened to her to put her in such a desperate situation, because she knows her family won’t understand, and she’s worried her peers won’t either. So she lies, which always comes back to bite her. Paris is a foreign place with foreign customs, and even when people are nice to her, they often can’t help themselves from complaining about immigrants stealing their jobs. She faces racism, sexism, and xenophobia on an almost daily basis — as if adjusting to a new country where she doesn’t know anyone wasn’t hard enough.
In part because Lina is so stunningly beautiful, she spends much of her time in romantic entanglements: attracting men is easy; making friends proves challenging enough that she even hangs out with a skinhead. She starts an affair with a married man (Paul Hamy) that she knows from the start will end in heartbreak, but it still shocks her. It also makes her feel initiated into Parisian life, ready to embark on another relationship. This time, it’s with an age-appropriate waiter who is sweet and loving, but has a bad drug habit and works as a drug dealer. And finally, she falls for the son of her immigration lawyer (Vincent Lacoste of “Lolo”) — probably the best match of the bunch though she sometimes treats him like a placeholder.
Each romance allows Lina to explore a different part of her, from embracing her burgeoning sexuality to looking for tenderness to exploring her political views. There’s something almost rote the way writer-director Danielle Arbid’s screenplay is structured around these three affairs, rather than focusing perhaps on how her relationship with her art professor and thus her academic interests evolves. But that’s partly the point, because Lina is isolated and desperate to cling to anyone who can provide her safe harbour — mostly men.
Director Danielle Arbid uses lots of closeups to keep us in Lina’s headspace, intimately aware of her emotions. She also shoots a lot of handheld for a cinema verité effect. Though Issa is a terrific actress whose face contains multitudes, the technique grows tiresome. It’s sometimes claustrophobic, and there are times when we might benefit from a calm wide shot, allowing Lina to bask in what she loves about her new home, however alien it may be.
Parisienne had its world premiere in the Contemporary World Cinema section of the Toronto International Film Festival.
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