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-[Film Reviews]-, European Cinema

‘Athena’ (2022): Violent Revolutions in Long Takes

Directed by: Romain Gavras || Produced by: Charles-Marie Anthonioz, Mourad Belkeddar, Jean Duhamel, Romain Gavras, Nicolas Lhermitte, Ladj Ly

Screenplay by: Romain Gavras, Ladj Ly, Elias Belkeddar || Starring: Dali Benssalah, Sami Slimane, Anthony Bajon, Ouassini Embarek, Alexis Manenti

Music by: Surkin || Cinematography: Matias Boucard || Edited by: Cherifi Akram Mohamed Yasser, Benjamin Weill || Country: France || Language: French

Running Time: 99 minutes

Themes of economic inequality and generational cycles of violent crime in French urban dramas such as The Divines (2016), Burn Out (2017), and BAC Nord (2020) echo the sociopolitical overtones of American crime ballads like The Wire (2002-2008) and Sicario (2015, 2018), but with a distinct style native to the current Francophone cinematic culture. A recurring feature of that contemporary French style is the increased use of motion-stabilized handheld (e.g. Steadicam) long takes to capture the aforementioned intense, rapid-fire urban combat. To be sure, long takes using handheld camerawork or mobile vehicle “dollies” is not an exclusively French phenomenon throughout the modern international film industry — most every type of genre cinema from Latin American period-pieces (e.g. The Secret in the Their Eyes [2009]) to Indonesian gangster epics (e.g. Berandal [2014]) to Netflix action thrillers (e.g. Extraction [2020]) to Marvel movies (e.g. Black Panther [2018]) to James Bond flicks (e.g. Spectre [2015], No Time to Die [2021]) flaunts at least one set-piece based around them — but few other film cultures use them as regularly or as dispassionately as movies set in French ghettos.

Top: Local protestors led by Sami Slimane escape with a police van and a locker full of confiscated weaponry after raiding a local precinct in Athena’s opening scene. Bottom: Supporting actor Anthony Bajon stars as our point-of-view character amidst the riot police.

Romain Gavras’ 2022 epic crime film, Athena, is another recent French picture about unrest in ethnic minority (i.e. Muslim and/or North African and/or Middle Eastern) neighborhoods, but one where motion-stabilized handheld long takes form the backbone of not just the feature’s overall visual style, but its narrative structure as well. Named after a fictional suburb meant to resemble an underprivileged south Parisian community, Athena describes a series of violent youth protests against alleged police brutality towards one of their own, a 13-year old boy. Protagonist and eldest brother of the deceased, Dali Benssalah, stars as a soldier returned from active duty trying in vain to prevent massive retaliatory civil unrest that his younger middle brother, firebrand Sami Slimane, is hellbent on carrying out. The latter interrupts a press conference by the former with a Molotov cocktail, several dozen Roman candles, and a hijacked squad car in the film’s riotous opening sequence and inciting incident, captured with aplomb through a 10-minute unbroken take involving multiple camera operators, moving vehicles, and a giant crane.

Athena never recaptures the sheer energy of this powerhouse opening, and at some point co-writer-director Gavras’ showy dedication to fluid camera movements calls attention to itself over the actual story and characters they’re meant to emphasize (see below), but I’d be lying if I said the film’s overwhelming singular vision isn’t memorable, nor its choreographed mayhem not exhilarating. After the initial police raid, different supporting characters across this ensemble assemble on each side of the law enforcement-protestor divide, depicting the communal riot from a variety of perspectives I wish were maintained through the chaotic ending. Everyone’s physical performances register with the fluid camerawork too, intermingling with extensive pyrotechnic practical FX that put various digital composite-shot oriented blockbusters to shame. If nothing else, Athena feels raw, real, and vicious through specialized cinematography every bit as “immersive” as most computer generated imagery (CGI)-theme park rides, just without all that CGI weightlessness.

Gavras’ most significant missteps occur where his director of photography, Matias Boucard, dominates the movie more than the actual script, almost like another type of special effect. To be frank, Athena’s nonstop theatricality runs out of tension by the end of its second act with the death of a major aforementioned character, and thereafter the film’s social commentary gives way to melodrama; aspects of the film’s long takes also overstay their welcome, such as how most are shot in medium to close-up range with medium focal length lenses in lockstep behind or directly in front of a given character, which prevents the viewer from finding their bearings in most sequences. The geography of the titular estate grows muddled despite how many times Boucard’s free-flowing cameras drift into the same locations, and as a result, certain characters feel like they vanish from encounters out of script convenience.

Top to bottom, Athena’s stylized direction and muscular cinematography are so accomplished I feel guilty for not recommending the film more; my attachment to the human figures within the film suffered due to how major characters’ development felt shortchanged relative to the sheer logistics of the long take choreography. As much as I loved the first act of Athena, I found the film’s conclusion underwhelming and questioned the use of multiple supporting castmembers’ roles throughout the narrative in retrospect; the longer the film ran, the more comparable Matias Boucard’s work here felt to that of Emmanuel Lubezki, whose technically impressive yet self-absorbed long takes (e.g. Y Tu Mama También [2001], Birdman [2014], The Revenant [2015]) I’ve criticized several times before. These long takes grow exhausting at some point, and sooner or later I find myself longing for the traditional rhythm of editing-driven sequences instead of camera movement-driven ones.

Protagonist Dali Benssalah (left) confronts his diegetic younger brother, Slimane (right), midway through the film.

Put another way, there’s much to like in Athena thanks to its magnetic subject-matter, which takes advantage of (exploits?) contemporary French demographic crises for multiple bonkers set-pieces. Its multi-layered oners become too much of a good thing by its final third, however, where much of the effective social commentary that powered the film’s earlier sections peters out by the final explosion. 


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Ethnic tensions and cultural conflict often make for memorable cinematic tragedy, and Romain Gavras’ 2022 portrait of French social unrest pays homage to numerous sociopolitical crime dramas while forging a cinematographic path all its own, taking advantage of the modern French love of character-focused oners to convey unforgettable urban chaos. When its characters guide the camerawork and not the other way around, the film is a thrill ride.

However… director of photography Matias Boucard’s long takes fail to clarify scene geography the way most action filmmakers’ extended oners do, and by story’s end feel decidedly less focused on characterizations than just showing off camera operator dexterity. I believe fewer, more focused long takes intermixed with more conventional cinematography would’ve better done the film’s political spirit justice.


? Did that minor, pointless character that Benssalah beat the shit out of (Ouassini Embarek) die, get knocked on conscious, or get blown up?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.


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