French Film Festival UK 2021 Review: Isabelle Huppet Political Drama ‘Promises’

Thomas Kruithof writes and directs Promises (Les promesses), a political drama that captures the nuts and bolts of the world of French politics and the human lives that these decisions affect. Isabelle Huppert leads with an intricate turn that explores a full spectrum of political ambition, whilst strong support from Reda Kateb as her long-standing Chief of Staff adds further weighty realism to the feature.

Alongside co-writer Jean-Baptiste Delafon, Kruithof captures the late career of Clémence Collombet, Mayor of an impoverished town outside of Paris – she is a competent figurehead for the suburb, contently nearing the end of her second term in office. An out of the blue offer for her to take on a ministerial government job is overshadowed by brewing trouble in a dilapidated social housing development within her district, whilst Collombet must cope with the personal ambitions of those working with her team. The previously earnest Collombet’s principles gradually begin to change as she is faced with the prospect of this enticing new role.

The understated Promises slowly builds up a picture of Collombet without giving too much away. We get a sense that she is effective in her role and moderately popular amongst voters, yet has never pursued political advancement. She has a grown-up son with whom we see infrequently, with Collombet choosing to focus on political connections as opposed to familial ones. The out of blue rumblings of a ministerial role for the Mayor sparks a shift in her priorities and demeanour – with the human repercussions of this seen in the residents of a squalid social housing block which is in structural turmoil.

The narrative is a slow-burner centred on complex political connections, deals and betrayals with each figure in Collombet’s circle swayed by their own motivations and ambitions – including the Mayor herself. A precarious, shifting relationship with her previously loyal Chief of Staff, Yazid, as he begins to grow more rebellious makes up most of the grit of Promises with a sharply-written scene including a dinner with a key Collombet political ally where Yazid delivers an unexpected monologue about Obama turning on a former ally – aimed as a warning shot to his complement long-standing boss. It’s these grey lines between trust and betrayal that help Promises pack a slow-burning intrigue – with character motivations not always clear in the ever-shifting political landscape explored.

Delving into the lives of some of the residents of the social housing block adds further meat to the bones of Promises, exploring the human consequence of these decisions and the use of vulnerable voters as pawns in political manoeuvres. An impressive supporting turn from Jean-Paul Bordes captures the links between politician and voter, with the actor representing the leader of the Tenants Association.

Huppert’s understated lead turn impresses throughout capturing a theme that should strike true with politicians across the globe – the sacrifice of promises in favour of political ambition. She’s a steely, strong presence as she navigates the day to day nuts and bolts of the world of French politics.

The cautionary line “With more power comes less freedom,” shared in the film, best exemplifies the message within Promises as Collombet teeters between political ambition and moral justice. This talky yet satisfying piece captures the complex world of political involvement in an impressive, human manner.

Promises plays as part of the French Film Festival 2021. Full details here.