A well-made drama with terrific dance scenes undone by poor characterization and all too familiar storytelling.
Grigris (SF Indiefest)
Director Mahamat Saleh Haroun spends no time establishing the main draw of Grigris‘ title character; in the opening moments we see the young, disabled dancer (played by non-professional Souleymane Démé) busting some moves on the dance floor to a rapturous audience. It’s a captivating sight, watching Démé writhe around the club while using his paralyzed leg to pull off some truly impressive moves. It’s a highly entertaining and original moment, but one of the only ones throughout the film.
Grigris is Souleymane’s stage name (Démé used his real name in the film), and during the day he spends time helping out his mother and stepfather. Tragedy hits when Souleymane’s stepdad falls severely ill, and the only way to save him is to pay 700,000 francs. This causes Souleymane to ask for work from Moussa (Cyril Guei), a local businessman who smuggles petrol. Souleymane gets hired on as a driver, but when he steals some money to pay for his stepfather’s treatments it gets him in some serious trouble. At the same time Souleymane is falling in love with Mimi (Anaïs Monory), an aspiring model who resorts to selling her body in order to make ends meet.
It’s a storyline that wouldn’t exactly feel out of place in a film by the Dardennes (or a lot of other European arthouse fare), but its familiarity is what undoes Grigris. Haroun’s simple, slow-paced form of storytelling only drags out the clichéd proceedings. In A Screaming Man Haroun had an immensely compelling father/son relationship at the heart of his film; here, we only get the relationship between Souleymane and Mimi, which is severely lacking. Démé is a talented and charismatic person, but he looks like he’s out of his depth when it comes to the thriller plotline. Anaïs, also making her film debut here, is gorgeous but her role can’t resonate beyond its “hooker with a heart of gold” archetype.
The way that Grigris and Mimi both use their bodies as a means of escape from their surroundings (him through dancing, her through modelling) only to use them in corrupt ways as a means for survival is a fascinating idea Haroun flirts with early into Grigris, but as the story takes darker turns that concept is mostly abandoned. The same goes for Souleymane’s dancing, which is shoved to the background once him and Mimi go on the run from Moussa. It’s somewhat confusing that Haroun would take his actor’s greatest strength and use it sparingly, but not as baffling as what he does in the final act. The film morphs into an anti-thriller when it shifts locations to a small village before taking a surprisingly feminist turn towards the end. It’s an unexpected moment, but it’s one that doesn’t gel with anything that came before it.
Despite its shortcomings, Grigris still has many things working in its favour. The cinematography by Antoine Héberlé is gorgeous, lending a vibrant quality to the film’s locations, and Haroun has a knack for boiling stories down to their essential qualities that would make other filmmakers jealous. If the script wasn’t so lacking in characterization (a good example: Grigris’ mother and stepfather vanish from the film when their conflict wraps up, making their presence as nothing but plot devices even more obvious) and freshness it might have been more affective. Instead it’s a minor work, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of.