by Jordan King
Following a span of two months where I have turned in over 35 reviews across three film festivals, devouring the best, the worst, and the most bizarre films that the festival circuit has to offer, I arrived at my final virtual screening of Berlinale 2021 with a question on my mind – ‘Why do I write?’ I love cinema. I love the tightrope dance across a keyboard as my fingers reach out for the next step in articulating my thoughts and responses to a work of art. I love the puzzle of criticism and the pursuit of some form of enlightenment that I do my best to carry like an overfilled bucket of water into my work, hoping not to have spilled too much to miss a chance to connect with and – metaphorically speaking – nourish the roaming souls who find my musings. But in an intense period of writing, writing, writing, 2-3000 words a day at times, exhaustion sets in and the mind kicks into overdrive interrogating the meaning of it all. And so, when Louda Ben Salah-Cazanas’ The World After Us began, with writer Labidi (Aurélien Gabrielli) confessing to his therapist ‘I have no idea why I write,’ the lightning strike moment of connection and resonance had me hook, line, and sinker, reminding me instantly of film’s unique capacity to fill in a missing note in your life when the melody feels somehow off-key. The film that followed did not disappoint.
A publisher remarks of the novel that Labidi is labouring over over the course of Salah-Cazanas’ film that it is ‘a testimony of today’s youth’, which also serves as a fair summation of what the French director has achieved with this feature, a zeitgeist capturing snapshot of life as a young person trying to make their mark in a world where everyone is already fighting over floorspace to plant their own proverbial flag in the ground. Through a slew of intimately shot scenes filled with intense close-ups under which we scrutinise the every second-guess and thought of our protagonist, as well as a cinematic mode that is both self-reflective on the filmmaker’s part and encapsulating of modern France’s inescapable romance and unavoidable socio-economic plights, Salah-Cazanas invokes the spirit of the French New Wave whilst idiosyncratically placing himself as a distinctly modern filmmaker.
Labidi is a struggling young writer who, after a small hit with a short story, is trying to publish his first novel. Living in a dingy “studio” with his roommate and best friend Aleksei, played as an endearing drifter by Léon Cunha Da Costa, Labidi finds himself working for Deliveroo to survive. That we immediately meet Labidi as a writer, forced to make ends meet cycling other people’s meals around Paris, living in squalid quarters with a pal as he dreams of something more that he cannot articulate, speaks to the experiences of many a young adult. ‘I don’t belong to anything, a contemporary affliction’ Labidi later narrates, zoning in on the specific sense of directionless meandering facing a 21st century population filled with graduates and gifted creatives whose talents frequently fall by the wayside and whose human connections are so often stunted by the labyrinth of cliques and sub-cultures and counter-cultures that is social media.
At his lowest ebb, Labidi meets beautiful young student Elisa (Louise Chevillotte). Following an awkward meet-cute in which non-smoker Labidi cadges a fag as an excuse to talk to Elisa before promptly choking on it, the frustrated writer soon – miraculously – finds himself caught up in a whirlwind romance. As our fallible underdog spins plates to pay rent on a home for himself and his girlfriend, working several jobs and stooping to more than a few lows to make ends meet as he tries to find the time to write at all, this simply spun but impeccably truthful and brutally honest account of modern living invites us to celebrate love and friendship and dancing as we sing at the top of our lungs whilst the world seems to fall apart around us. It also invites us to consider and eulogise the innocence adulthood strips us of, the ratrace we generationally find ourselves in to thrive in a world designed to serve the few and starve the many, and the seeming futility of pursuing the creation of art at the expense of the experiential beauty of living our life first-hand. That Salah-Cazanas and co-scribe Abdellah Taïa can somehow balance these exquisite highs and crushing lows is a great testament to their empathy and artistry, and when capable of producing such lyrical, haunting turns of phrase as ‘our story is a common disease, I will love it til the end,’ the sense of life and art as existent in a constant state of flux is evoked powerfully.
Weaving in subtextual discussions of national and religious identity and three-dimensionalising his story’s characters through nuanced writing and impeccable casting – Gabrielli is an utter revelation with his haunted yet handsome features and fizzing rage at life’s trials and tragedies – Louda Ben Salah-Cazanas’ The World After Us is a profound examination of the state of our generation. In its quieter moments, it guides us to reflect on our own lives and how we lead them in the face of so many external influences and challenges, whilst in its infrequent but potent moments of explosivity we are given the emergence of a vital, composed yet clearly exasperated voice in independent cinema. When a film is as good as this, to write about it is nothing less than my privilege and my duty. Seek it out.