Published Sep 21, 2015When Parisienne, Danielle Arbid's semi-autobiographical film about her experiences immigrating to Paris in the 1990s, begins, Lina (Manal Issa), a recent Parisian transplant from Beirut, is being sexually harassed by her uncle. Not having anywhere to go after she flees the abusive situation, she befriends a couple of girls at school — we learn later that she's moved to Paris to study — and manages to convince them to let her stay at their flat until she can figure out her situation.
Arbid, who rarely allows the camera to move too far from our protagonist, does an impeccable job of capturing Lina's feelings of alienation. Being dependent on strangers, Lina is awkward but perpetually agreeable, and Arbid, wanting to immerse us in the experience of being an outsider, never provides any external reassurances or narrative conventions to give us a firm impression of the strangers this protagonist encounters. We, like her, are left to see only their interactions and surface presentation, which ultimately leaves us just as powerless and anxious as this Lebanese immigrant is.
In addition to tackling themes of alienation and cultural disparity, Parisienne plays out like a diary, having a coming-of-age backdrop to accompany the cyclical misanthropic disposition of perpetual disappointment that Lina encounters. Early in the film, Lina meets a man in a club and tenuously strikes up a sexual affair. She's nervous at first, wanting to leave the light off and covering her body, but she ultimately succumbs to his wants. Though it's never outright stated, her agreeability as mode of survival seems to put her in a prone position, which is made clearer when he ditches her and reveals that he's actually married. Similarly, Lina's new friends are quick to kick her to the curb when a petty grievance arises, reiterating a generalized lack of community or foundation.
As the story progresses, we gradually learn more about this mysterious outsider. She admits to lying to strangers about her experiences in Lebanon, merely telling people what they want to hear (reiterating stereotypes about wartime atrocities), and demonstrates a propensity for risk-taking. After befriending some Royalists and leftist protesters, seeing the sort of fleeting modes of identity presentation that Parisian youth engage in, she finds some connection with a low-level drug dealer, finding excitement in the danger of it all even though one slip up could mean deportation.
Throughout these many episodic storylines and interactions, there's a slow-building sense of confidence and identity established. At first, Lina's timid behaviour and reluctance to be contrary or talk about herself makes her seem meek and diffident, but as the story progresses, her strength and complexities are revealed, which is reinforced through her increased comfort with her body and her sexuality.
While the thoughtful thematic tapestry providing a backdrop to the story is intriguing on its own, exploring issues with immigration and the lack of foundation in a nation of privilege, it's ultimately this elaborate and magnetic characterization that helps Parisienne maintain its momentum throughout its two-hour runtime. Lina is a fascinating woman full of contradictions and unwavering spirit. Her lack of judgement and ability to experience life as it comes is both a testament to youth and an intriguing projection of the sort of ideals that most people claim to demonstrate but actually don't.
Even though things run on a bit too long and occasionally repeat themselves, Arbid's ambitious coming-of-age story is a remarkable achievement and a wholly thought-provoking and compelling film. (Les Films Pelleas)