This article contains spoilers
The opening scene of Romain Gavras’ Athena is one of the most thrilling single-shot set pieces of recent years. Those familiar with the French filmmaker’s music video oeuvre will recognize his hallmarks: Molotov cocktails and police clashes, tracking shots of fast moving vehicles, intense close-ups of brutality and violence, all set against the brutalist grey of the banlieue. In one ten-minute barrage we are plunged into an incendiary raid on a police station and whirled through a breakneck retreat. The co-ordination is akin to theatre; each actor’s movement and speech is choreographed, yet not artificial. The camera steps from one speeding vehicle to the next, blending smooth close-ups with wide-shots. It is a stirring, breath-taking opening, demanding our undivided attention with absolute immediacy.
Athena explores familiar questions of the instability of modern French identity. The young rioters rally under the battle-cry of ‘Athena’, the cité they call home. They wear identical tracksuits stolen from a local football club, giving them the uniformity of an army. To the contrary, Abdel, an actual soldier whose absence has created a simmering familial tension, is seen as a traitor for his loyalty to the French state. Motifs of ‘Frenchness’ abound: There are echoes of Les Misérables and the infamous street insurgencies of the 19th century, while the balaclava-wearing youth astride the stolen police van, tricolour in hand, echoes Jacques-Louis Davide’s depiction of Napoleon crossing the Alps.
Despite an enormous cast of extras, the audience is given a select few personalities to invest in. Each of the three living brothers fulfils a leadership role to different aspects of the Athena community: Karim leads the young; Abdel the everyday citizens; Moktar the criminal underworld. The latter is a caricature of ruthless individualism, entirely at odds with the solid communitarian allegiances of the young. His attempts to smuggle out cocaine and weapons through police contacts rather than contribute to the cause leads him to shack up in a local shisha bar. Trapped and paranoid, his character becomes increasingly frantic and increasingly detestable. By the time he is killed at Abdel’s hands, we are glad of a break from his petulance.
It is Karim (played by Sami Slimane) who is the most captivating on-screen presence. His is a character trapped between naïve innocence and nihilistic rage. His jaw appears constantly clenched and there is a cold brutality to his gaze, even while his lip seems always on the verge of trembling. War general to Athena’s youth, his leadership stems from the loss he has suffered and the barbarity by which he will seek its retribution. Yet what makes him so engaging is the internal battle he faces. He is emotionally still a child – it is fitting, for instance, that he is the only son who answers the frantic phone calls from his mother. She, in turn, recognizes his fragility. Unlike his peers, relishing in the upheaval, Karim seems to take little pleasure in the destruction. A true Shakespearean protagonist, his battle is a personal one, each minute an internal trial.
Athena’s premise, and it’s strength, lies in its exploration of the conflict between the cité and the state, as symbolised by the antagonism between Karim and Abdel. The familial relationship at the heart of social conflict ties this story closely to Greek tragedy. Like a modern day Antigone, Abdel is caught between loyalty to the polis and loyalty to his family. A void lies between him and his younger brother; he is composed and rational, while Karim is fraught with rage and revenge. The plot explores the strains placed on each as they navigate their grief and their responsibilities within the community. Following classic Greek tragedian structure, we watch with knowing expectation that some eventual, inevitable catastrophe is coming.
It is unfortunate, therefore, that the film crumples under the strength of its opening half. By the time we reach the stand-off between Karim and Abdel through the closed shutters of the shisha bar, it is clear their diverging responses to grief and the consequential breakdown of their relationship is the film’s key point of exploration. The climax, therefore, arrives too early. Karim – arguably the film’s most multi-dimensional character – is killed off with a whole thirty minutes to spare, leaving too much time to portray the unravelling of Abdel’s sanity. This should have been the film’s denouement, a footnote forcing us to ponder how the most rational and upward-standing son can now cope with the loss of two beloved (and one innerving) siblings. Abdel’s character arc is unsatisfying. From protecting the isolated policeman to now threatening his death on camera, his abrupt shift is jarring. Far more natural is his fall into suicidal depression, the conclusion Gavras eventually lands on, as Sebastien – the local Islamist – lives out his jihadist fantasy by blowing up the apartment block.
It is a shame that a film so initially promising should slump under its own potential. The influence of Greek storytelling couples beautifully with the austere contemporary setting of the banlieue and the plot is founded upon an interesting premise. In the final shots of the film, the audience is left to infer that Idir’s killing – an apparent police assassination – was in fact a setup by the far-right. The dramatic irony becomes evident: everything preceding has been futile; what ranked as political uprising is now relegated to inconsequential outburst.
It is an interesting social commentary for Gavras to make. The implied takeaway is that the closest danger to French society – or to French banlieusards, at least – comes not from the state but from the extreme fringes (though sadly not so fringe nowadays). One might even read the film as an apology for the French state and its relentless enforcement of Laicité, pinning instead all the blame on fascist factions at work outside mainstream political life. Whether this is the case or not, Athena does add itself to a canon of banlieue-set works that explore the distinctive divide between those who inhabit the centres and peripheries of French life, both geographically and politically. Athena takes this now-familiar setting and uses it to unpick character and explore the reaches we will go for catharsis. With only a closer inspection of the old tragedies Gavras was so clearly influenced by, this film might have been one of the best of last year.