Trying to capture lightning in a bottle for a second time is always an unenviable task. That was the challenge laid out to directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano as they seek to follow-up on the massive critical and commercial success of 2011’s Untouchable, a light and hugely enjoyable odd-couple tale. Unsurprisingly, they have reunited once again with star Omar Sy for their fourth collaboration, Samba (2014). The result is a warm and engaging blend of romantic comedy and social drama, with Sy a shining light at its centre, but it lacks the irresistible charm which would have allowed it to replicate the magic of four years ago.
That was largely down to the chemistry between Sy and a wheelchair-bound and wealthy François Cluzet. They forged a bond across the socioeconomic divide and Samba sets the same template in motion. This time Sy plays the titular character, an illegal alien just trying to keep on keeping on with cash-in-hand jobs in Paris – beneath the radar of the French immigration authorities. When he is arrested, volunteer caseworker Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) arrives to advocate on his behalf and is immediately enamoured. It’s not so much a case of sparks flying, however, as much a simmering attraction. It’s an appealing and gentle romance against the backdrop of Samba’s struggles to make a better life for himself. This includes an enjoyable supporting turn from Tahir Rahim as a fellow immigrant, Wilson.
The film’s most overtly comic sequences involving the duo’s job-seeking travails and shady deals to obtain knock-off work permits. These side-stories are a distraction from the central relationship, though, and while entertaining they speak to an innate lack of confidence in the strength of the central romance. Arguably, this is due to the passive nature of Gainsbourg’s character who is empathetic enough – and the actress willing – but is unable to provide the verve and tension that chimed so perfectly with Sy’s talents in Untouchable. This is equally undermined when the frisson between them is overshadowed by that of a one-night stand between Samba and another woman. All that said, Sy is once again on fine form.
A more disarming screen presence it is hard to imagine and his beaming smile elevates even the most subdued of scenes. As the tone shifts between scenes towards the film’s slightly muddled – and dramatically contrived – climax he and Gainsbourg are more than capable of shifting seamlessly with it. While the script may be trenchantly sentimental, the whole cast has the ability to pull of those moments and it is admirable to see filmmakers committed to putting stories like these with a populist slant onto the screen. That Sy and Gainsbourg’s love story never quite inflames the heart ultimately means that Samba remains a pleasant, rather than an enduring watch.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson