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Thomas Kruithof Promises Review


Promises | 2021 Venice Film Festival Review

Promises | 2021 Venice Film Festival Review

Broken is the Golden Bowl: Kruithof Rips at the Red Tape in Character Driven Political Drama

It’s not so much politics as usual in Les promesses, the sophomore film from director Thomas Kruithof, whose 2016 debut The Eavesdropper tackled more ominous and clandestine angles of a similar realm. A sobering melodrama about ripple effects activated by maneuvering between government and city officials who lean surreptitiously into selfishness rather than civil duty, as its title indicates, promises are merely placeholders for inevitable disappointment and dismay. Recruiting the imperious Isabelle Huppert to star as a suburban Mayor at the end of her second term, and wooed by dangling carrots of her own, Kruithof surprises with his ability to channel warmth through both an actor and a subject matter most closely associated with iciness and rigidity. Neither sentimental nor sanctimonious, it’s a narrative which unspools a worldview akin to a cruel game of chess, where sacrifice is demanded for progress which trudges at a snail’s pace.

Clemence (Huppert) is the Mayor of a Parisian suburb, on the verge of completing her second and self-avowed final term. At the top of her agenda is to complete a mission in securing a sizable subsidy to save Les Benardins, an infamous apartment complex, from increasing urban decay. Battling slumlords and owners refusing to pay mounting user fees, she attempts to swindle a deal with commissioner Jerome Narvaux (Laurent Poitrenaux) by assuring she can collect said fees and therefore count on him supporting a hefty subsidy to reinvigorate Les Benardins.

A complaint filed by Michel Kupka (Jean-Paul Bordes), head of the owner’s group, threatens the success of collecting the user fees, leading her Chief of Staff, Yazif (Reda Kateb), to suggest the Mayor’s office should sue the administrator, which cannot be done unless the fees are paid. Only, both Clemence and Yazid know such a move is merely lip service, even if it will ensure the tenants eventually benefit. “It’s neither a fake promise or a real lie.” Local slumlords attempt to derail her plan, and Clemence is further distracted when Narvaux suggests he could nab her an interview with the Prime Minister for her own ascension to Minister post (a position of ‘more power but less freedom’). Once this fantasy is leveled, Clemence decides to run for a third term, though her party has already agreed to back her deputy, Naidra (Naidra Ayadi). As time runs out for the user fees to be collected, Clemence must use her leverage and her future career on doing the right thing.

We’ve seen countless examples of Huppert’s calculations and control, often playing women who are masters at manipulating gain even at the expense of themselves through brutal victimization. But her Clemence plays like something of a novelty, even in comparison to her own bottomless filmography defined by rebellious ingenues and tenacious women across a variety of hierarchies. A woman of her word, she’s so committed to bowing out after a promised second term, she’s neglected to plan her own future, which is why the sudden possibility of a post as Minister ignites her ambition anew. Arguably, it’s at best a long shot and at worst a distraction from her insistence on strong-arming a subsidy long promised to an infamously dilapidated housing complex long overrun by slumlords. Either way, the resulting exchange of favors allows for Clemence’s character to flourish, with Huppert conveying her as an instrument resigned to playing its final chords. She pivots expertly in one tense dinner sequence, announcing her unpopular third term plans, remaining steadfast as well as vulnerable to the reality of neglecting the human connections which assisted her success.

Paired with Red Kateb, Huppert is unexpectedly charming, which allows for Kruithof to end on a note both realistic and poignant. If his first film felt like a riff on Coppola’s paranoia thriller The Conversation (1974), there’s a hopeful sense of the Capraesque in this navigation of France’s political system, usually presented satirically (and as a view from the top), as in Betrand Tavernier’s The French Minister (2013) or with barely contained hostility, such as Pierre Schoeller’s The Minister (2011).

Clear-eyed without drowning in cynicism, Les promesses is a smartly navigated scenario from Kruithof and Jean-Baptiste Delafon, side-stepping social issue soapboxing for a tale about the realities of government civil service and the thanklessness of administration.

Reviewed on September 1st at the 2021 Venice Film Festival – Orizzonti. 98 Mins


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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