Sur ta joue ennemie (2008)
aka: Welcome Home
A film directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade

Genre: Drama

Review published:


Sur ta joue ennemie photo
Julien has paid the debt he owes society: thirteen years in prison for a crime he committed when he was sixteen. Now, on the day of his release, he hopes to make a clean break. Unfortunately, society is in no hurry to forgive him. Before Julien has had time to adjust to his new life, he is emotionally derailed when he encounters a young woman named Emilie. He knows that she alone can help him to come to terms with the past, but she is instantly repelled by him. Emilie has no desire to let him rake over painful memories. In fact, if she had a chance, she would almost certainly kill him...
© 2012

Film Review

Can a convicted criminal ever be accepted back into society or must he remain tainted for life, forever denied the possibility of making a fresh start?  This is the question which this thought-provoking French drama raises, although the answer it proffers contains few crumbs of comfort for those who believe in redemption and forgiveness. Sur ta joue ennemie (a.k.a. Welcome Home) is the first fictional feature to be directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, an acclaimed journalist and documentary filmmaker. De Lestrade picked up an Oscar for his 2001 documentary film Un Coupable ideal (Murder on a Sunday Morning), a shocking exposé of racial prejudice in the American judicial and prison system. The injustices experienced by prison detainees both during and after their sentences is a subject that is close to De Lestrade's heart, so it is not surprising that this should provide the basis for his first film drama.

De Lestrade's mise-en-scène is understated yet powerfully expressive and brings a sombre realism to the film. There is also a subtly poetic quality and humanity which prevent it from being a cold piece of social realism.   Right from the start, we are compelled to identify with the alienated protagonist and feel his sense of frustration and injustice. We do not yet know what crime he has committed, nor are we in a hurry to find out. He has served his sentence, he should be able to put his past behind him and start a new life. But society - represented by former acquaintances and prospective employers -  will not let him forget and seem determined to push him over the edge. It is a strange thing that even when Julien's crime is revealed to us (and it is about as horrible as it could be) our sympathies are more with him than with those who seem incapable of showing him any mercy or compassion.

The film owes much of its emotional power to an outstanding central performance from Robinson Stévenin, who is perfect in the role of the permanently ostracised Julien. Outwardly, Stévenin's portrayal has the allure and sensitivity of a poet, and yet we can hardly fail to sense the thundering resentment that rages beneath the surface, a fury that is aggravated by Julien's own inability to come to terms with the horror of his crime. It is a performance of exceptional quality, as engaging as it is disturbing, and one that ignites the film with a blistering humanity. Stévenin's tortured performance is beautifully complemented by that of Fanny Valette, who, as Emilie, conveys something of the inner darkness that her co-star projects but also a vitality and warmth. Emilie is Julien's female alter ego - she is as tormented by the past as he is and feels the same sense of estrangement from humanity. Both characters have made themselves prisoners, and yet ironically both hold the key that can set the other free, should they choose to surrender it.

The film derives its enigmatic title from the poem "Tristesse d'été" by the 19th century poet Stéphane Mallarmé - "Et, consumant l'encens sur ta joue ennemie, Il mêle avec les pleurs un breuvage amoureux..."   It is through poetry that the main protagonist Julien ultimately finds freedom, having come to realise that the stigma of his crime has made it impossible for him ever to be a free man in the physical sense. The film does not attempt to excuse Julien's crime, but it is eloquent and unambiguous in its condemnation of a crime that is perhaps just as loathsome and incomprehensible - society's unwillingness to give him a second chance after he has paid the price that society demands of him. With the same compassion and commitment to social justice that have emboldened his documentaries, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade delivers an astute film drama that is uncompromising, powerful and highly relevant.
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If you like Sur ta joue ennemie you may also like: Deux jours à tuer (2008), Jeune & jolie (2013), Valley of Love (2015) and Le Temps qui reste (2005).
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