Film Review: Les Drapeaux de Papier

Lost in Frenchlation brings French cinema to the international community in Paris by screening French films with English subtitles. As part of an ongoing collaboration, we’ll be posting monthly film reviews and offering readers the opportunity to get involved in LoF events. Click here to enter to win free tickets to the film’s screening and Q&A with lead actress Noémie Merlant at Cinéma Luminor.

In what has been a feature-length debut for French director Nathan Ambrosioni, Les Drapeaux de Papier, or Paper Flags captivatingly depicts the devastating impact prison life can have on inmates, as well as the cracks they often fall through once back outside in the ‘real world’.

30-year-old Vincent has been hung out to dry by the prison services. After twelve years behind bars he’s suddenly released, but without the safety net of any rehabilitation programme or support network that one might expect. The only person he can turn to is his 22-year-old sister, Charlie, an aspiring artist who’s struggling to make ends meet stacking supermarket shelves. When she reluctantly lets him move in with her, things don’t go particularly smoothly for the pair, played by Guillaume Gouix and Noémie Merlant, whose on-screen dynamic is outstanding.

Prison life is a law unto itself, with its unique set of rules, lingo and even sounds. The opening scene realistically depicts this unnerving environment: the incessant screams of Vincent’s fellow inmates echo throughout the prison, heightening his sense of loneliness within the cramped confines of his cell. Once set free, he’s faced with the even bigger task of learning how to readjust to life as a functioning member of society again. Twelve long years inside certainly haven’t left him unscathed and his frequent violent outbursts not only alienate Vincent from those around him, but also from himself. Solitary confinement, it seems, can go beyond the length of a prison sentence.

Guillaume Gouix gives an exceptional performance as Vincent, who although no longer incarcerated, is now fighting to break free from the ex-prisoner pigeonhole society has placed him in. His father refuses to lay eyes on him and his criminal record follows him everywhere goes, especially in the eyes of prospective employers. His sister Charlie appears to be the only one able to provide the human support he so desperately needs. Flickering between close-ups and long shots, the camera angles reflect how society prefers to look the other way when it comes to the treatment of recently released prisoners.

With this first feature film, the young and talented Nathan Ambrosioni (who was just 18 years old when shooting the film!) forces us to re-examine what it means to be truly free as the freedom Vincent once desperately yearned for becomes overwhelming once abruptly obtained.  Paper Flags, a bleak yet compelling movie littered with mesmerising scenes, marks the start of a promising career for this rising star in French film.

Raphael Kalifa, translated by James Preston

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