“Athena” by Romain Gavras, Greek tragedy in the French suburbs

The new shocking and controversial film Athena about the French suburbs shows an uprising in a city turning into chaos and civil war. Director Romain Gavras delivers a terrific work that’s exclusive to Netflix.

Analogous to “La Haine” by Mathieu Kassovitz (1995) and “Les Misérables” by Ladj Ly (2019), “Athena” by Romain Gavras is set in a fictional French town on the brink of explosion following the announcement of the death of a young boy, apparently the victim a police error.

While his brother Abdel (Dali Benssalah), who is a member of the French army, tries to calm people down and demand justice, the youngest, the boisterous Karim (Sami Slimane), calls for rebellion. The eldest, Moktar (Ouassini Embarek), a licensed trader, is just trying to protect his business. Caught in the spiral of violence that will lead to the kidnapping of a CRS (Anthony Bajon), all three run to their loss. All against the background of neo-Nazi provocations.

“The idea is not to have bad guys and good guys, it’s more complex than that,” the director told AFP. “Something bad happens at the beginning of the film and it’s fate that wreaks havoc,” he added.

>> To see: the trailer for the film “Athena” by Romain Gavras

Thought like a Greek tragedy

With Ladj Ly (“Les Misérables”), who co-wrote the screenplay and who also appears in one of the first scenes of the film, this third feature film will be directed by Romain Gavras (“Our day will come” (2010) and “The World is Yours” (2018)) was conceived as a Greek tragedy that would take place today.

The French director takes up all the codes of the genre here, namely the unity of place, time and plot, the themes of revenge, violence, death, loyalty and the tragic fate of the main characters. The city, whose name Athena also refers to Greece, is depicted as an ancient citadel and the scene of bitter battles.

The soundtrack, signed by the musicians Surkin and Romain Gavras themselves, with its epic compositions for choirs also supports the tragic and operatic side of the feature film.

>> To listen: “Assault” from the soundtrack of the film “Athena” by Romain Gavras

An aesthetic of violence

Filmed in the Paris suburbs of Evry, Athena focuses on pure action and offers ultra high violence aesthetic research, particularly through sequence shots of impressive technical complexity. Like the first twelve minutes, shot at eye level, showing the attack on a police station, then the arrival in town of a police car stolen by the young insurgents.

Without making any claims to realism, “Athena” is above all a film that wants to be sensual and totally immersive. We recognize it as one of the hallmarks of Romain Gavras, who breaks his teeth in music videos by artists such as Stress, Born Free or Justice. Some of his productions had also sparked controversy due to their extreme violence.

It’s also a shame given the film’s aesthetic power that it’s only available on the small screen via Netflix. “The film could not have happened without the platform,” believes Romain Gavras, who nevertheless acknowledges his “great dismay” at not being able to show it on the big screen.

A controversial film

Launched a few weeks ago at the Venice Film Festival, where it went empty-handed, Athena has been the talk of the town and sparked controversy since its release on Netflix last Friday. The first opinions are very clear. When some speak of “a slap in the face” or a “hitting film,” praising “stunning visual effects,” others deplore a cartoonish vision of the suburbs, or outright denounce a call for violence or “anti-cop propaganda.”

It must be said that if the form was very elaborate, this is at the expense of the substance. Finally, after recovering from the visual vertigo we just experienced, we wonder what message the director wanted to convey. “The goal of the film is to show that there are always forces in the shadows pushing for war. Today, the strongest extreme pushing for war is the ‘extreme right’,” the director explained for his part during the film’s presentation at the Venice Film Festival in early September. “I take pictures, I have no solution. I’m not a politician,” he added.

Andréanne Quartier-la-Tente with agencies

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