Past and present ferociously head butt each other in Games of Love and Chance (L’Esquive), a French drama in which an insult like “Fuck you, you fuckin’ faggot motherfucker!” reverberates with classical subtext. Congregating in the hallways and courtyards of a Paris housing project, groups of teens engage in rapid street talk, piling on profanities with cavalier abandon. United in vulgarity, they’re also bonded by an unlikely academic endeavor—the mounting of a class play by the 18th-century dramatist Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux, an altogether different kind of wordsmith whose verse must seem as foreign to them as the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre.
In the Marivaux comedy from which the movie takes its English title, the identity-swapping characters discover that they can’t escape their class-determined destinies. The movie poses a parallel predicament: Can great literature lift these banlieue adolescents out of their dreary surroundings? The most enthusiastic taker is Lydia (an excellent Sara Forestier), a bossy beauty who’s playing the lead in the school production and who dispenses much unsolicited direction during rehearsals. Her most faithful friend is Krimo (Osman Elkharraz), a monosyllabic underachiever who tentatively essays the role of Lydia’s secret admirer both onstage and off.
If Marivaux’s characters communicate in microsurgical badinage, the verbal exchanges in Kechiche’s film register more like sledgehammers on reinforced concrete. Krimo’s jealous ex accosts the unsuspecting Lydia with a magnificent string of epithets, threatening to “waste you, you motherfuckin’ ‘ho!” (The movie is either a subtitler’s dream or worst nightmare.) Even Lydia’s own “homey” Frida (an unleashed Sabrina Ouazani) takes frequent verbal swings at her buddy, blasting her romantic indecision and haughty pride. For all of Lydia’s take-charge attitude onstage, she finds herself on the defensive when it comes to everything else. Her dilemma is embodied by the movie’s French title, L’Esquive, a fencing term for dodging that foretells the feats of evasion she must perform whenever libidos flare.
Unlike American counterparts Kids or
Dangerous Minds, this highly intelligent comedy (which cleaned up at this year’s Césars) doesn’t seek to shock or inspire, but merely documents teen moodiness in all its tedious unpredictability. It also avoids making big political statements, seldom drawing attention to the ethnicity of its cast, who are mostly of Arab, African, and Asian descent. Echoing Marivaux’s own obsession with the subtleties of the human visage, Abdellatif Kechiche’s DV camera indulges in tight close-ups that scrutinize every facial nuance with nonjudgmental fascination.
Games of Love and Chance is ultimately about the power of words, particularly their ability to fail us. Krimo’s stage debut collapses when his Esther Kahn–worthy line readings inspire laughter from his peers. More ominously, a climactic act of police brutality crushes all attempts at calm, verbal reasoning from the young protagonists. Let down by language, these kids have every right to be angry and profane. Life isn’t winsome drama after all, but a procession of petty and depressing moments that grow increasingly difficult to endure. Reading between the cuss words, the movie glimpses a sunny teen innocence just before it darkens irreversibly into adulthood.