Welcome (2009) dir. Philippe Lioret
Starring: Vincent Lindon, Firat Ayverdi, Derya Ayverdi, Audrey Dana
By Alan Bacchus
The ironically titled Welcome explores further the popular theme of the immigrant refugee experience in Western Europe from the point of view of an Iraqi refugee in the French port of Calais, a city rife with xenophobic, bigoted elitism. Fortunately, director Philippe Lioret's statement making doesn't overshadow the authentic and genuine characters inhabited by the film's two impressive lead actors. Though largely unknown on this side of the pond, Welcome makes for an unpretentious art house discovery.
Bilal is an Iraqi Kurd whom we meet after an arduous journey from Iraq to Calais. After 4,000 km, he's a mere 20 km away from his final destination ― England ― to be reunited with his girlfriend. But when his attempt to cross the channel hidden in a truck is stymied, Bilal finds himself stranded in purgatory without options.
Enter Simon, another lost soul: a white swim teacher who finds himself recently divorced from his wife and experiencing the same feeling of emptiness in transition as Bilal. Against his personal judgment and his latent bigoted perceptions, as well as the strict policy by the Calais government against sheltering illegal aliens, Simon takes in Bilal and trains him to swim the English Channel to be reunited with his forlorn lover.
Due to this real world implausibility, Welcome sits somewhere between social and magic realism. A feeling of Hollywood sentimentality permeates the sharply drawn, gritty urban aesthetic. The narrative subtly hits all the familiar structural beats, and even manages to find a satisfactory ending, which is both reverential to its characters and leaves us with a cloud of cynical melancholy.
Lioret is aided by a pristine, classically composed visual design complementing the distinct sense of loneliness and isolation. For Simon, it's his separation from his wife and for Bilal, it's the feeling of being an unwanted stranger in a strange land. The likelihood that Bilal would be able to survive the choppy waters of the English Channel never inhibits our ability to believe in the journey.
At its core, the immersive and convincing performances of Vincent Lindon and Firat Ayverdi as Simon and Bilal make the picture work, the magic of this humanist story coming from their characters' steadfast belief and determination to make the impossible happen.