La Petite JerusalemFor audiences looking to see a French movie, 2005’s “La Petite Jérusalem,” showing again next week at Makor in NYC, provides some of the staples. Good-looking naked women appear more often than they would in the American equivalent. And Laura, the film’s young and beautiful main character, is in many ways a modern Madame Bovary, a woman out of the 19th century French provinces who wants nothing more than adventure and Paris, but is held down by tradition and patriarchy, with local love affairs as her only outlet for freedom.

The difference between the world of Laura’s family and that of 19th century Catholic France is that, aside from language, Laura’s family has no particular ties to their country of residence. The setting could be anywhere– there’s nothing specifically French in this film, aside from the language, the public transportation, and, perhaps, the level of anti-Semitic violence. The Muslim and Jewish communities in Sancerre, as depicted in this movie, clearly have more in common with each other than with the “French-hyphen-French,” either in Paris or elsewhere. Theirs is a France without haute couture, fruits de mer, or guilt-free extramarital sex. As shocking as it is that Laura would have a flirtation and brief affair with “the boy from the mosque,” it would be unthinkable for her to come home with playboy Jean-Jacques, sweater tied around his shoulders just so.

So not only do Laura and her family have to contend with family crises and the restraints of a traditional lifestyle–which are at least offset by religious faith and community support–but they are, unlike the suffering-yet-French-Catholic Bovaries, or the Jewish-but-only-in-origin Swanns, not all that comfortable in France. Is “La Petite Jerusalem” a French movie or a Jewish one that happens to be set in France? Both, but it’s also about the failure of the French-Jewish fused identity. French Jews, as such, exist only briefly in this movie, as a community just arrived from North Africa, and on its way either to complete assimilation or to Israel.

That the action takes place in the 21st century ultimately expands the family’s options– Laura is able to move to Paris on her own and is neither married off in her own community nor forced to convert to Islam and remain with her first lover, while her family is able to move to Israel. But the message is that you have to pick Judaism or Frenchness. Reform Judaism isn’t so big in France, and the implication at the end of the movie is that Laura’s moving to Paris to become French and to leave her Jewish life behind.

At the end of the movie, when you see all the boxes, labeled in French, Laura’s family packed up for their move to Israel, it’s unclear whether this is supposed to be an even slightly uplifting ending. While the family idealizes their future life in Israel, they also move because, as Laura’s brother-in-law points out, it can’t be worse there than in Sancerre. This is a Zionist message–the future of the Jews is in Israel–but a bittersweet one at best.

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phoebe

8 Comments

  • J’ai trouver ce film parfois relativement plat, pesant, gauche et mal joué. On croirait parfois les dialogues directement tirés de (mauvais) bouquins de philo, donc déjà pas crédible en terme de “dialogue de la vie courante”. De plus les propos en sont alors d’une prétention et d’une banalité affligeante, Exemple: “la passion est une illusion des sens… je veux rester maitresse de mes émotions” etc..

    Good thing muffti doesn’t really understand French is all I can say. This is what passes for Kantian philosophy in the French cinema? O how the mighty have fallen.

    Yes, you have the whole clash of cultures thing going on but that was done better recently by Ken Loach in the film “A Fond Kiss…” and the focus is almost all on Laura’s family.

    So why see this? Because you live in New York or New Jersey and you probably hardly ever see a foreign film. At least this one has a Jewish theme and it’s playing at the Y. Also Fanny Valette as Laura is uh… quite compelling. Her Muslim lover though… not so easy on the eyes. Just sayin’

    As for those Jewish themes, Phoebe has more than adequately discussed those. I don’t know if her conclusion is correct though. Laura is seen as enlightened, modern and intelligent and her decision to stay in France flows from that. Her family is ultimately portrayed as backwards and provincial and thus they escape to Israel, moving from their homes in fear like generations of ghetto Jews before them. Even the title of the film “La Petite Jérusalem,” which describes Sarcelles, implies a ghetto. That’s weak and facile. But what do I know, I’m biased… I live in La Grande Jérusalem… 🙂

  • “This is what passes for Kantian philosophy in the French cinema? O how the mighty have fallen.”

    I took it as, this is what passes for philosophy for a naive girl, desperate to escape from her surroundings. Kant is her Britney or Nirvana. I live in New York, see plenty of foreign movies (as do many NYCers, can’t speak for the rest of NY or NJ), but had not yet seen one about contemporary French Jewish life. If any others exist, I’d like to know.

    “Even the title of the film “La Petite Jérusalem,” which describes Sarcelles, implies a ghetto.”

    I didn’t see it as a ghetto so much as a replica of a vast array of different choices (Jewish or Muslim? How observant?) that have more to do with, say, Jerusalem, or even the rest of the world, and less to do with France in particular. Both more specific and more universal than the rest of France.

    But I agree re: the Muslim lover. She had to have been pretty hard up. The Orthodox brother-in-law was a bit cuter, but I remain partial to Israeli actors.

  • I’m a sucker for jewish themed movies depite being so often disappointed. I really hated this one…it was completely unbelievable. Maybe if a hot white guy had been cast as her love interest instead of that mustachioed man. Another film made about religious jews by jews that just don’t get it.

  • this movie is very caricatural, believe me sarcelles is all except that

    i agree with ck, ce film est lent, long et prétentieux et comme je suis un sepharade je rajoute qu’il fout la hasra.

    fanny vallet is cut but shiksa, too bad.
    elsa zylberstein is cut (half jewish by her father)

    see “la vérité si je mens” (very funny but so stupid) (movie about parisian jews and their shmata biz)

    le tango des rashevski

    and eat ice cream, chunky monky, my favorite

  • “Ya rassra” (typical born-tunisian french jewish expression)
    Angoisse incontrolée qui vous prend a la gorge, dans la poitrine et meme dans tout le corps. Tres courant chez les Tunes, surtout chez nos meres et grand meres. Avant, se traitait presque exclusivement avec de l’eau de fleurs d’orangers (maazar) sur un carreau de sucre. En cas de symptomes aujourd’hui, demandez a votre medecin de vous prescrire les merveilles modernes (Prozac, Zoloft, etc..)

  • La neta, no les entendi ni madre. Para ser sincero, al final, no dejaba de imaginarme a la chava esta encuerada… mmmmmm. Sip, asi es, nunca logre entenderle al “plot” de la película. Pero, al mismo tiempo quiero aclarar que me di cuenta, al dudar, de que realmente poco se de la vida de los judios y de los franceses. No osaría a cometer la estupidez de basar mis comentarios en solo las pocas peliculas americanas-francesas o cualquier otro filme que haiga visto. Creo que uno puede entender los orígenes de la película al conocer a personas del entorno, en este caso a judíos y franceses.

    Quiero ir a Francia y Jerusalem!!!! ajua!

    … y hay los dejo comentado de su pelicula, ji, ji….

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