Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 17th, 2020
Les sauvages (Sabri Louatah/Rebecca Zlotowski, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.
The French have long held that their national identity revolves around culture and language, and that the adoption of both, and assimilation to the customs and practices of each, leads to acceptance, no matter one’s place of origin. Though the term “melting pot,” long applied to the United States, has deservedly lost much of its appeal in a world increasingly intent on celebrating, rather than minimizing, diversity, France has certainly held the same position within Europe that our nation has held in the world at large. A look at the last names of its citizens quickly reveals the sizable number of immigrants, past and present, who have made their home there, the continent’s third largest country (after Russia and Ukraine). Still, myths of what makes a person part of a larger whole are often just that, legends to soothe the collective soul, telling the masses that one need but do this and that, and all will be well. We can see the dangers of what happens when that fantasy implodes here at home, in the fractured socio-political landscape of today, and such unraveling has also happened in the land of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” as well.
Many Americans naïvely thought that electing our first African American president, Barack Obama, in 2008, would somehow resolve the conflicts of our tortured history of exclusion, but it merely served to bring those disputes into sharper relief. Which brings us to our current crisis, on the seeming precipice of chaos. France has had its share of simmering – and sometimes exploding – violence: witness the 2015 terrorist attacks and the rise of the far right, covering two forms of extremism, as but two examples. With its largest immigrant group coming from its former colonies in North Africa (approximately 6 million people), it makes sense that a unifying figure (a French Obama), seen as someone who could bridge the racial/ethnic divide there, might arise from that population, rather than elsewhere.
Such is the premise of a new 6-part, 6-hour series from Canal+, Les sauvages (“Savages” in English, and for those struggling with the lack of capitalization on the “s” of the French title, that’s how they roll there), which releases on Topic (a new streaming service from First Look Media) today, September 17. From co-creators Sabri Louatah (based on her eponymous 4-volume literary saga) and Rebecca Zlotowski (Planetarium), Les sauvages follows the fortunes of Idder Chaouch (Roschdy Zem, Paris by Night), France’s first viable Algerian candidate for its top office, whom we meet on the eve of the election, with polls showing him in a clear lead to win. An intellectual (a former Harvard economics professor, in fact) and a self-made man, he represents the hopes that a country riven by strife over its imperial past and the ongoing debates over who gets to be truly French could move beyond all that by electing a man of Arab descent. Of course, as we now know well, it is never that simple. Embraced by many, Chaouch is nevertheless rejected by a vocal minority, some from the usual suspects on the right, but also from certain elements within France’s large Muslim community, who see him as too assimilationist. Nevertheless, as election day approaches (a Sunday, because that’s how places that actually want their population to vote do things), there is optimism in the air. Maybe, this time, the country will change for the better.
Chaouch is just one of the many characters here, and in fact for much of the series he takes second place to the roiling drama among the rest of the ensemble. The story alternates between the capital of Paris, where Chaouch, his family and his campaign are located, and the city of Saint-Étienne, located approximately 500 kilometers to the south, where another family’s turmoil threatens to directly affect national politics. The connection between the two is forged by a hot young actor, Fouad (Dali Benssalah, soon to be seen in the upcoming No Time to Die), who just happens to be dating Jasmine (Souheila Yacoub, Le sel des larmes), Chaouch’s daughter and campaign manager. He hails from Saint-Étienne, though left there long ago to make his fortune in the big city, more or less abandoning his relatives as he went, himself assimilating into the larger culture and now on a hit TV series as heartthrob “Doctor Frank.” Unfortunately, he can’t quite escape his roots, embodied by his older brother Nazir (rapper Sofiane), who sits in prison for hate speech (we assume of the anti-Semitic variety), but still looms large within the family. The two siblings’ rivalry and ideological differences form the central spine of the narrative.
But not the only one. There are also intergenerational battles and struggles within Chaouch’s inner circle over the best approach to healing France’s raw post-colonial wounds. The two mothers – Jasmine’s, Daria (Amira Casar, Call Me by Your Name), and Fouad’s, Dounia (Farida Rahouadj, Gagarine) – represent the differing attitudes, partly based in class, of women who have experienced anti-Arab racism in its variegated forms, unsure of their own future and the country’s. The series is also a taut thriller (a bit like a season of 24, only shorter and spread out over a week, instead), as an assassination plot, terrorism threats, and other potentially destabilizing events endanger the potentially glorious promise of a Chaouch administration. We therefore spend time with the French secret service, most notably embodied by the head of Chaouch’s personal detail, Marion (Marina Foïs, 4 Lovers), whose missteps could derail not only her career, but the fate of the nation.
All told, though Les sauvages does, a little too frequently, descend into soap-opera territory, complete with unnecessarily overwrought musical accompaniment, it tells a mostly gripping tale that speaks very much to our moment, its concerns of interest beyond the confines of the French setting. Indeed, so much of Chaouch’s appeal, as well as demeanor, is similar to that of Obama’s, that it’s impossible not to see direct parallels to the American dynamic of the past decade. Well-acted and slickly produced (with the exception of a really boring, poorly structured opening-credit sequence), Les sauvages (which takes its title both from how Nazir portrays the French thought on Arabs and a speech by Chaouch on the civilization/savage dichotomy in all of us) is a powerful mix of entertainment and polemic, engaging in its dialogue and stimulating in its ideas. Watch, enjoy and learn.