Claus Drexel directs Under the Stars of Paris (Sous les étoiles de Paris), a glimpse at life on the margins of Paris, starring Catherine Frot and impressive newcomer Mahamadou Yaffa. Delicate and heartfelt, Drexel’s film captivates us with gorgeous turns from Frot and Yaffa, as well as the quiet, emotional tone that the filmmaker crafts.
Christine (Frot) wanders the streets of Paris spending her time between free food banks and milling around the city, this routine is shifted when she meets Suli (Yaffa), an 8-year-old Eritrean boy, sobbing in front of her shelter. Separated from his mother, Suli quickly forms an attachment to Christine, despite her initial reluctance to connect. The pair soon embark on an emotional journey to reconnect Suli with his mother.
Drexel co-writes with Olivier Brunhes, with the pair capturing a delicate bond between two marginalised individuals in a manner that feels brimming with conviction and authenticity.
Christine is near silent for the first fifteen minutes of Under the Stars of Paris where she observes the bustling urban life around her, yet operates on her own secluded plain – with a makeshift shelter under a bridge and a lack of connection with the fellow homeless people at local shelters. Frot’s body-language and expression are impressive, capturing a woman closed-off from society, disconnected from the many lives that surround her on the busy streets. Her lack of communication is further captured in her unwillingness to engage with Suli initially, yet she is ultimately broken by his persistence before their bond blossoms.
The joy of Under the Stars of Paris comes in the quiet moments where Suli and Christine’s relationship is forged. Taking to her as a maternal figure, Suli cannot speak French – something that perhaps suits Christine – their relationship instead crafted through shared experiences as marginalised individuals or silent moments of kindness exchanged between the pair. The initial frostiness of is chipped away by Suli’s heart-warming smile and childish innocence with Christine forced to step up and take on this newfound maternal role.
As the narrative progresses Drexel and Brunhes gradually drip-feed more details about Christine’s past – further warming us to her as a character and deepening the bond between the young refugee and homeless woman. The extent of her intelligence and even her own past tragedies are quietly shared with us, revealing the depth of Frot’s rich performance. Gentle moments of comedy (particularly as Christine tries to shake her young fan) paired with heartfelt moments (Christine selling a prized necklace to buy Suli new underwear and trousers), produce a charming blend which both actors channel wonderfully.
Whilst Under the Stars of Paris feels gentle in its direction, the feature does briefly delve into the concepts of racism in French society and the hardships of both migrants and the homeless community – capturing the dangers faced by both marginalised groups. These challenges further invest us in the dynamic between Christine and Suli to the point where we are gripped by their quest to reconnect with young boy with his mother. Drexel plays with some ambitious visual styles also – a Don’t Look Now inspired hunt for a lady in a red dress – and the striking beauty of the urban landscape of Paris ensures that the film matches its narrative tone with rich aesthetics.
Under the Stars of Paris presents Catherine Frot in one of her most impressive performances, whilst Mahamadou Yaffa excels alongside the French cinema titan. Drexel’s well-pitched narrative and gently poetic direction ensures that this is a punchy and beautifully tender watch.
Under the Stars of Paris plays as part of the French Film Festival UK at Home. The film is available from Saturday 28 November (from 19:30 – available for 24 hours). For more details check out the FFF website.