The reviews were mixed when “Welcome” won the European Parliament’s 2009 Lux Prize, awarded to films that show “the process of building Europe in a different light.” Previous winners were the highly acclaimed “The Edge of Heaven” and “Lorna’s Silence” — and criticisms of “Welcome” focused on the fact that it offered less political depth than the previous two, and also belittled the plight of illegal immigrants by linking the subject to a personal relationship issue.
True, there are a certain amount of mental acrobatics required to take in the unlikelihood of a middle-aged Frenchman befriending a 17-year-old Kurdish refugee mainly to show his ex-wife that he’s not the selfish oaf she thinks him to be. On the other hand, what other motive rings true for a first-world citizen awakening to the desperate situation of a third-world teenager who has walked 6,500 km from Iraq to Calais in order to be reunited with a girlfriend in London?
The teenager has poignancy, urgency and tragedy rising from his entire being like a visible fever. The Frenchman is mediocre and out of shape. Confronted by the boy’s fiery passion, the man feels at a major disadvantage.
Later, he tells his ex that this boy risked life and limb every step of the way to get to Calais but he himself “couldn’t even cross the street to get you back.” All this may defy a couple of laws of logic, but the gut feeling here is that it’s the kind of (grim) fairy-tale that we need to see more of.
Vincent Lindon — one of French cinema’s most valued assets — plays Simon: a former Olympic swimmer who is now a drab, uninspired coach. Day after day he walks up and down the rim of the municipal pool, droning about stroke rhythms and kick techniques to kids and middle-aged women hoping to lose weight.
Then, one afternoon, Kurdish teen Bilal (Firat Ayverdi) approaches him and asks for lessons so that he may cross the English Channel (this entails 10 hours of ocean immersion in subzero temperatures) to get to London. One look at Bilal’s physique tells Simon the boy is an athlete (he had actually been an ace soccer player and runner back in Iraq) and, despite misgivings about aiding an illegal immigrant (which could get him in trouble with the authorities), agrees to give him two lessons. It’s all Bilal can pay for, and Simon hopes that after a few days Bilal will give up his outrageous notion and resign himself to hanging around town with the rest of the Kurds.
At the same time, Simon is ashamed of his reluctance, since his ex-wife, Marion (Audrey Dana), risks arrest every night by running a soup kitchen for immigrant Kurds. Marion’s altruism baffles Simon as much as Bilal’s blind determination, but he’s drawn to the two of them like a moth to a light bulb, maybe to bask in the energy and heat of their convictions.
Director Philippe Lioret pretty much confines “Welcome” to the dilemmas dealt to Simon, Bilal and Marion. But on occasion, fragments of a dark reality emerge, shifting the stage from personal to political.
At one point, Bilal admits that he had been held captive by Turkish soldiers for over a week, thrown into a cell with a plastic bag over his head. In another scene, a mob of Kurds storm the municipal pool for the right to use the showers, and are brusquely turned away.
The capper is when Bilal and a group of other Kurds pay a middleman to get them across the Channel in a freight truck. Monstrous 16-wheelers stream through the immigration toll booths at a snail’s pace. The screen clouds over with truck fumes while the lights from the vehicles and scanners used by the police to ferret out stowaways pierce the retina.
Simon asks what fate will await them if they make it across. “I will get a job at a supermarket,” says a friend of Bilal, proudly. And that seems to be the fate of most of the Kurds: They will seek relatives and friends working way below minimum wage in shops and restaurants, so they can get similar jobs and send money back to their families in Iraq.
“Welcome” doesn’t point fingers, but it’s heavily sardonic (the title refers to the inscription on a doormat outside the apartment of Simon’s immigrant-hating neighbor) and steeped in despair. For all that, there’s a sense of redemption: After his encounter with Bilal, Simon’s life has been altered forever — likely for the better. Perversely, it’s to Lioret’s credit that this knowledge doesn’t make us feel any better.