Venice review: Isabelle Huppert rivets in this razor-sharp political drama, ‘Promises (Les promesses)’ [Grade B+]
Isabelle Huppert battles to keep her place in the mayoral office in Thomas Kruithof’s Les Promesses, also known by its English title Promises. It’s a thoroughly engaging, deeply-researched political drama that plunges its audience into a state of constant intrigue.
If Les Promesses is comparable to any other recent film, it’s got to be the Adam Driver-starring film The Report from 2019. Not for its subject matter, but for the feeling that one leaves with after watching the film. Both films allow the spectator to feel intimately involved in the overtly specific, almost otherworldly, events that the films follow. It’s impossible to let go of the film’s tight grasp as one becomes actively engaged.
Clémence (Isabelle Huppert) is the mayor of a French town which is in the midst of an ongoing housing and unemployment crisis. The place that Clémence and her associates circle as the biggest priority to do-up is a tower block named Les Bernardins, located out on the outskirts of Paris. The dismal flat is owned by a set of tyrannic men who care very little about their tenants. Despite a huge flood ravaging the housing complex, they still go in to collect every tenant’s rent. While this is happening, Clémence also prepares her political aid Naidra (Naidra Ayadi) to become her successor as she plans to step down after her second term, as she promised.
The promises that the title, obviously, hints at is no one specific promise, but a slew of about twenty. They are mostly all political-related promises, but a few are personal pleas. Additionally, it must be stated that promises are what political campaigns are built on and driven by. Politicians are salespeople, they sell attractive ideas that are tooled to entice people to vote. Here, Huppert’s Mayor is looked down upon as her second term is coming to an end, but she’s failed to live up to her promise to revitalize Les Bernadins. This is where the film’s narrative kicks into gear.
Kruithof’s film deals with two overarching plot threads that eventually intertwine in the denouement. Even though Clémence was once adamant about letting go of being mayor, she ultimately turns back on her decision. This is one of the film’s plot threads that deal with Huppert’s character’s personal ethics. It’s clear that she struggles to break such a big promise, but when she realizes that it’s a mistake, she vehemently changes course which has a big effect on her workplace dynamics. The other thread follows Clémence’s campaign manager who desperately tries to put forward the bill to rebuild the tower block, despite all odds being against him. It’s fascinating to watch the dramatic back-and-forths as both sides try everything in their power to make things right.
The film delivers an insightful behind-the-scenes look at the sometimes extremely manic goings-on in the world of politics. It delves into the darker strains of political tension, while also showing a hopeful side with the satisfaction that political workers are given when their goals are achieved. There’s something so fascinating about films like this whose characters are so intelligent that one almost becomes overwhelmed by the level of detail given. But it’s not expositional detail, it’s pure smarts and tactical talks about how to best handle each ongoing situation.
Ultimately, the level of filmmaking on show is incredibly good, paving the way for Les Promesses’ razor-sharp screenplay to play out with some A-class actors. Les Promesses is as insightful as it is riveting.
This review is from the Venice Film Festival. There is no U.S. distribution at this time.