Promises

***1/2

Reviewed by: Stephanie Brown

Promises
"If Kruithof’s main ambition with Promises is to make audiences debate and ponder over the relationships between politicians and the public then it is definitely succeeds in its efforts to bring these puzzling and interesting topics to light." | Photo: Courtesy of Venice Film Festival/Jerome Prebois

Thomas Kruithof’s Promises (Les Promesses) tells the winding tales, or perhaps rather, the trials and tribulations of a mayor facing a political dilemma. Isabelle Huppert stars as Clémence - a valiant mayor who is reaching the end of her term in office. Kruithof’s feature is a fresh look and examination of the problems and hardships of employees within the political sector - although the political portrait fails to feature a sufficiently tangible background to support the socio-political layers in focus.

Clémence plans to stand down from politics and with no intention of standing for re-election she is in the process of preparing a young and upcoming candidate (Naidra Ayadi), and finalising her paperwork, duties, for a swift and silent exit. When it comes to light that an apartment complex is close to collapse, and an opportunity for Clémence to step up as minister arrives at her feet - she must make a choice to fight for the local community, or focus on the future of her political career.

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Kruithof does well to analyse the utilitarian conundrums faced by political figures in society. It is less about framing politicians as the peak of normative narcissism, and more questioning of whether the forces at work within society are more introspectively complex than can be assumed, without letting them off the hook entirely. Through the character of Clémence we navigate the more existential questions of social purviews: are politicians, through the way they are advised to conduct themselves, ever truly able to relate to the communities they represent? And if they are, are they in tune enough to understand the issues communities face that they have never personally experienced? And if they are not able to relate in any sense, will their own personal aspirations always trump the needs of the people they represent? If Kruithof’s main ambition with Promises is to make audiences debate and ponder over the relationships between politicians and the public then it is definitely succeeds in its efforts to bring these puzzling and interesting topics to light.

The script is very clever and perfectly paced, and the performances, particularly from Isabelle Huppert and Reda Kateb, who plays Clémence's chief of staff, are delightful and truly engaging. Isabelle Huppert does well to reveal the edges of the character of Clémence while keeping a slight aloofness, giving her moral compass a hint of mystery as the plot develops.

The one thing that seems missing is a more three-dimensional commentary on society. While the residents of the unaffordable slum housing appear as an aid to the struggles of Clémence and her political team, the characters, which are part of the heart of the film, are never given a voice in the background. Perhaps the characters were meant to evolve as visual aids rather than developed characters, and the lens’ focus on the politicians was intended to emphasise the ambiguous nature of the political sector. But, the erasure of these stories makes the tone of the film feel a little unbalanced, and the narrative incomplete.

Promises is an interesting and thought-provoking feature that explores the complexities and ambiguities that lie in the centre of instabilities within political climates, and their relation to the social outlook of communities let down by the system. Kruithof has created a cultured and accessible script, with stellar performances from the protagonists, and broad questions that will stay with you after the climax.

Reviewed on: 01 Sep 2021
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A mayor in the final term of her political career faces a choice between integrity and ambition.

Festivals:

Venice 2021

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