Absolute power corrupts absolutely in Les Promesses a biting political thriller that isn’t afraid to move, but one with a few too many moving parts.
A Parisian mayor, Clemence (Isabelle Huppert) formed her campaign around integrity and honesty, around the idea that she would serve two terms before passing the baton to her successor. Her final act is to ensure a €63 million rescue fund for the decaying urban area, but when that falls through due to the flat owners justifiably refusing to pay their rent, and thus forfeiting the bill, it becomes a race against time for Clemence and her chief of staff Yazid (a sensational Reda Kateb) to ensure the bill. In desperation, and in a lingering cling for power, Clemence is willing to play the bureaucratic games she never would, telling half-truths and breaking promises for the greater good, much to her political party’s chagrin.
While this moves relatively briskly for its 98 minute runtime, it’s too busy, and moves too quickly around political figureheads to be truly coherent. It is hard to keep track of which political chess move is affecting which area of the board. There is a slumlord making moves against the bill, a political opponent who exists to showcase Clemence’s experience, the apartment blocks owner who is blocking the bill due to the (in comparison to the size of the bill) meagre €100,000 fee. There are still more characters in various forms of power within the French government, who all seem a little one-dimensional in the vague reasonings behind their movements. For its brief runtime, it’s just a bit too chaotic.
Les Promesses provides much in the way of biting political offcuts too, as it names drops Barack Obama and Donald Trump into an amusing narrative tirade reflecting the journey Clemence is on. One may read into the subtle connotations behind the film too, as it reminds of London’s Grenfell disaster, in how government mismanagement and an oblivious blind eye to squalor in the name of financial gain, leads to buildings waylaid by greed. It becomes especially poignant with Yazid’s personal connection to the building complex, which provides an emotional hook for the audience to connect to. A moment in which Yazid returns to Les Bernadins and meets an old neighbour is one that is sure to bring a joyful smile, as his desperation to give this block of flats, and the people within it, hope. It’s a moment that really brings together how important the stakes are to Yazid and subsequently, the audience.
Regardless of the film’s inability to breathe and reinforce character, there is a lot of power within the story. It is completely unafraid in its knowledge that what it’s showing is moving and as the story climaxes, it cranks up the score to an ear bursting, emotionally captivating level. While this can come across as manipulative, it is resonating enough to ensure that, as an audience, we are emotionally connected, and pulling at heartstrings is the soul of political thrillers such as this.