Opening Night of the 23rd annual New York Jewish Film Festival screened Friends from France (Les Interdits), written and directed by husband and wife team Anne Weil and Philippe Kotlarski. This was the U.S. premiere of the film which stars Soko, French singer and actress who most recently played the voice of Isabella in the film Her with Joaquin Phoenix. Weil and Kotlarski were present for a Q & A after the film. They clarified elements of characterization and choices they made with the film’s direction, discussing why they steered the film away from being solely political. They chose to make it more of a suspenseful, personal drama with political undertones as a backdrop for creating the film’s tense, thrilling atmosphere.
Friends from France is set at the height of the Cold War in 1979 Odessa when Soviet Jews were seeking asylum in Israel and America to escape the repression under the Brezhnev regime. The writers/directors achieve a chilling simulacrum of the oppressive environment the Jewish “refuseniks” and political asylum seekers confronted. With dark shadowy shots, washed out, grainy film, and hues of grey and bleeded out color, the predominantly nighttime action and cinematography reflects the impoverished settings, indicative of the lifestyle of the refuseniks who wanted to immigrate to Israel and were treated as enemies of the state. Filmmakers went to abandoned areas of East Germany to recreate the interior apartments and ramshackle dwellings as sets for the poor and rundown areas of Odessa where refuseniks lived in a world separate from the luxurious hotels, dachas, cafes, and restaurants enjoyed by those hooked into the communist party.
The film focuses on the relationship of nineteen-year-old idealist, Carole (Soko in a powerful performance) and Jérôme (Jérémie Lippmann) who are cousins on a mission that in their naiveté they don’t quite understand. As aides to an Israeli organization in France, they go undercover traveling to Soviet Russia to connect with Jewish refuseniks.
Posing as a couple on tour celebrating their recent engagement, they enter the country sneaking in banned books and other items at great peril to themselves. Carole is the political one who has been to Israel and she especially is working with others in Israel and France in the hope of eventually securing visas for refuseniks who are secretly in touch with an Israeli organization via “tourists” who visit from France. Jérôme is with her because he is attracted to Carol and this adventure; he enjoys being with her more than upholding the cause. The code words they use to connect with the refuseniks who are being closely surveilled are, “We are your friends from France.”
Jérôme and Carole must suppress their words and actions because there are “bugs” everywhere and the KGB is on hand to question and take away anyone who appears to be suspicious. The atmosphere the filmmakers create is truly frightening, especially when the young couple nearly get caught and when those they are helping are taken in and forcefully interrogated. During their time in Odessa, they learn the dark underbelly of the subterranean oppressed culture. They experience the harsh, seedy realities of totalitarianism, the potential exploitation of their youth by the Jewish organization, and the need for escapism through sex and drugs in the stultifying environment. And they befriend the refuseniks, especially Viktor (an excellent Vladimir Fridman) who entrusts Jérôme with a journal of his incredible survival story in the Gulag.
The journal is a subversive document. If it is found by the KGB it will result in imprisonment and torture of the one who possesses it and its author. To complicate matters Jérôme has fallen hopelessly in love with Carole and is devastated when she goes off with one of the “friends” from France. His jealously puts him in an emotional flux. The directors use his emotional state to heighten the suspense and further our anticipation that he is capable of taking unnecessary risks because of it.
Is Carole seeking love elsewhere to escape her love and desire for her cousin, Jérôme? In keeping his promise to Viktor, will Jérôme safely get the journal through customs? Or will he be caught, imperiling himself and jeopardizing the consummation of his love with Carole? The filmmakers are skillful in creating thrilling intrigue. The adventure culminates in an ironic surprise ending. Weill and Kotlarski successfully reinforce the themes which show the extent that love brings the cousins and friends together through sacrifice. It is a journey where only the finest can experience and fully understand the cost of political and personal freedom.