TIFF 2015: Parisienne
It only takes several minutes for Danielle Arbid’s Parisienne to throw its main character into a seemingly never-ending struggle to live her own life. Lina (Manal Issa) has just arrived in France several weeks earlier from Lebanon, staying with her distant aunt while attending university in the city. In the opening scene, Lina flees her aunt’s home after her uncle tries to have sex with her, and from there she faces one hurdle after another in her attempts to start anew in Paris. Whether it’s befriending students to find a place to stay or taking on odd jobs that could violate the conditions of her residence permit, Lina never stops hustling in the hopes of settling down.
Arbid tends to keep things simple for the most part, knowing that watching her protagonist’s struggle to do things on her own terms is compelling enough. What’s even more compelling is Issa’s performance as Lina, which walks a fine line between earning sympathy for her situation and keeping viewers at arm’s length with Lina’s stubbornness (a brief detour in the narrative where Lina goes back to Lebanon makes the character, and Issa’s performance, all the richer). She’s far from a perfect or idealistic character, and Arbid’s ability to give Lina room to fail or wrong others in her pursuits prevents the film from turning into a sappy story about overcoming adversity.
The somewhat lackadaisical approach Arbid takes in the second half, with the introduction of a new boyfriend that suddenly pushes other aspects of Lina’s story to the backseat, can get a little frustrating, especially considering the somewhat bloated two-hour runtime. But Issa’s magnetic presence makes it hard to lose interest, and Arbid never loses sight of her film’s strong thematic core. No matter how many friendships Lina makes and breaks, how many romantic interests come in and out of her life, or how many obstacles get thrown her way, her goal to achieve happiness through independence never wavers. Arbid understands the power of that sort of narrative, and by approaching it with a naturalistic eye, Parisienne makes for a satisfying experience.