Low Life (2011)

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One of the themes most often addressed in current European cinema is that of illegal aliens trying to enter Europe and escape their previous life of poverty or persecution. Although these movies (of which a few recent examples are The Invader from Belgium, Indignados from France and Terraferma from Italy) naturally acknowledge the controversy and general complexity of the problem, they all essentially come down on the side of the illegal immigrants, and against the harsh immigration laws of the European Union. Why can the EU not be humanitarian enough to help these devastated people who have risked and often lost everything they had in order to come here? The callousness with which the rich part of the world protects its wealth against the desperately poor and destitute is thrown into sharp relief, and exposed for what it is: an abominable failure to observe our own stated ideals of equality and human rights, as well as an equally abominable failure to act with a modicum of compassionate humanity.

Movies like this make this point by placing the illegal immigrants in close proximity to us, directly showing us their emotions, their problems and their worthiness of our help. Love, too, can become a key point, making it all the more clear how painful a forced deporation of an immigrant can be to the woman who loves him.

Low Life shows us the world of young people existing on society’s underside. We find ourselves among a group of activist squatters in Lyon, who are protecting a small group of African illegal immigrants. The main character is Carmen, who falls in love with another hang-around, the Afghan student Hussain, whose immigration papers are just running out and cannot be renewed, meaning that he can only stay in France as an illegal alien. The African immigrants are applying for papers, but their applications are rejected, and the rejection papers become known as “death warrants”.

The movie doesn’t really go specifically into politics, but mainly hovers on two things: the existentialist experience of the anti-establishment activists and the question of immigration. The activists are speaking in a heightened language of philosophical and poetic terms which seemed stilted to me. Is it realistic for them to be so abstract in their expression, and so unpragmatic about their more immediate situation?

The movie seemed slow and interminable to me, and more than a little pretentious in its dialogue, but fortunately the director was on hand for a debate afterwards, and he cleared up quite a few things. Do activist subcultures really speak like this? Absolutely, he said. They do this deliberately in order to circumvent the language and mindset of established (capitalist) society. It turns out the movie has been very thoroughly researched, and the director has spoken to people like this in many different countries, and most of the details in the movie are based on something absolutely real. This is gratifying to know, and certainly increases my appreciation and recollection of the movie.

The director also said that there is a war going on that you can only see if you are part of it. At first, I took this in a political sense, meaning that those who do not agree with our established social system feel oppressed by it, whereas those who don’t think much about it do not feel oppressed. However, it seems he meant it more in terms of illegal immigration, where illegals are being hunted, criminalized and frequently abused for nothing but wanting to escape misery. This, he said, is particularly catastrophic under French president Sarkozy, where the police have been tasked with all illegal immigration duties, meaning that immigrants are put in jail and interrogated and often treated extremely harshly while their families are watching. This inhumane treatment causes a great deal of serious trauma, a increasingly common variety of which is narcolepsy.

Low Life contains all of these elements, and through Carmen we are taken on a nigh-dystopian journey through a European system that incriminates its own citizens for helping or loving illegal immigrants, expertly demonstrating the human cost of these dilemmas.

The movie is the kind of movie which does not aim to be entertaining; it aims to be seriously educational. As such it can be a hard watch, because its direct entertainment value is negligible. It is kept in twilit green-ish hues to underscore the human melancholy and the ubiquitous CCTV presence, and while is has its attractive moments, both in terms of characters and visuals, it is also a movie that requires a significant helping of intellectual effort to sit through. What makes it easier, however, is the fact that Carmen (Camille Rutherford) is so gorgeous; she reminds more than a little of Rachel Weisz, and it is the impression that she makes on us that ensures that we will remember the entire movie and its deep problematic. As such, this rare and difficult movie is ultimately a success that will keep rummaging around in your mind for a long time.

Director: Nicolas Klotz
Cast: Camille Rutherford, Arash Naimian, Luc Chessel, Michaël Evans, Winston Calixte and others.
Runtime: 129 min.
Country: France

Film Rating: ★★★★☆

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