Cannes 2015: 'La Tête Haute' Is a Rosy View of France's Juvenile Courts
Long takes of Malony gazing at harvested wheat fields and planted trees surrounding his rural rehab center -- a traditional, idyllic, cultivated French countryside -- suggest order and peace.
"You should take the hands that are given to you." With this, juvenile judge Florence Blaque (Catherine Deneuve) makes the pale and volatile Malony (Rod Parador) grasp her palm. Malony’s occasionally loving, but mostly erratic and angry mother (Sara Forestier) lost him to the child protection services when he was six. At 13, he was back in the judge’s office for joyriding without a license. Now, four years later, Malony has spent a couple of stints at a juvenile center and is facing jail time.
In the absence of a responsible parent, it is the government workers -- especially the patient Florence and a sensitive counselor, Yann (Benoit Magimel) -- who tutor Malony, from a child prone to carjacking and sudden outbursts of rage, to an adult. It is their helping hands Florence asks Malony to acknowledge, as well as, by extension, that of the expansive French welfare state. The state supports their work, spending, as Yann points out to Malony, over 200 euros a month per child in the system. This system is caring but also demanding. When Florence offers her hand, Malony does not really have a choice because, in a judge’s office, as La Tête Haute (Standing Tall) -- the opening film at this year's Cannes Film Festival -- keeps reminding us, you do as adults tell you, that is, you calm down and conform.
And yet Malony resists. Parador, a first-time actor, conveys well the boy's relentless underlying anger. First, his body begins to shake, then, suddenly, he lashes out, throwing objects and expletives in all directions. Early in the narrative, he attacks his first, not so sensitive, counselor, and we are particularly disoriented by how fast the lanky teenager shoves his heavyset, middle-aged mentor around, banging his head at a couple of different walls before a guard steps in. The shaky handheld camera makes Malony’s tantrums seem especially menacing and out-of-control. At times, his rage turns to tears: Malony’s brief, inexpert first lovemaking with his girlfriend (Diane Rouxel) runs the gamut of tender, rough, and despondent. This mix of fury and despair makes Malony sympathetic despite the threat he poses to "society" (according to the courts), as well as to those close to him: his little brother nearly dies in a car accident that is Malony’s fault.
The caseworkers are as patient as Malony is defiant. Francine is regal and unwavering in her care, literally steadfast, as Deneuve performs almost the entirety of her scenes sitting down. And Yann, who went through the juvenile courts himself before becoming a counselor, provides personal and emotional support.
But it's not only individuals who mean well. La Tête Haute offers a detailed and sympathetic portrayal of the juvenile justice system in France. Most of screen time is devoted to deliberations in a cramped judge’s office, conversations peppered with dry bureaucratic language and legal slang. This documentary style continues the tradition of Polisse (2011), a film about police child protection squad in Paris, based on a script co-written by La Tête Haute director Emmanuelle Bercot. She says that the story is inspired by her uncle, a social worker whose juvenile center she visited in her youth. She adds that she spent weeks attending juvenile court sessions and touring rehab homes while working on the script with Marcia Romano.
A similar attention to detail appears in the film's representation of its primary setting, Dunkirk, a town in Northern France. It offers a more controlled environment than chaotic culture clashes featured in other coming-of-age films that take place in Paris, such as Polisse or La Haine (1995). Classical European polyphonies dominate the soundtrack. Long takes of Malony gazing at harvested wheat fields and planted trees surrounding his rural rehab center -- a traditional, idyllic, cultivated French countryside -- suggest order and peace.
As she states in an interview, Bercot chose to tell a story of a provincial white troubled kid to avoid such genre "clichés" as racism, immigration, and gangs. The juvenile centre’s white, Arab, and African residents trade insults and punches, to be sure, and debate discrimination in France in general and the court system in particular. Their counselors deflect these complaints by pointing out, "It depends on the offense," or, as Malony says once, "It depends on the judge." These interactions ring true, but we don’t get to know any of these anonymous teenagers enough to evaluate their offenses, backgrounds or personalities. By the time Malony blows out the candles on his 17th birthday cake, any conflicts among the happy young men around the table seem forgotten.
Deneuve reports that working on La Tête Haute made her "realize that we live in a very civilized country." But today’s France is far from peaceful and orderly, as the deadly attack on the offices of a French satirical magazine Charle Hebdo showed this January.
These shootings inspired mass demonstrations, islamophobic violence, and a new, expanded surveillance law that passed the lower house of the French Parliament just a week before La Tête Haute premiered at Cannes. For all its authentic details and excellent performances, the film provides offers only a partial and too rosy portrait of the French juvenile system, and, by extension, of that "civilized country".