I rarely get to see a good gritty love story these days. Romance is supposed to be a light feel-good story or the weepy-sad feeling of loss in a tragedy. From director Jean-Bernard Marlin, his film Shéhérazade is about a gritty as a love story can get.
Zachary (Dylan Robert) is a 17-year-old boy finally stepping out of juvenile hall after serving several months for aggravated robbery. He’s met by his parole caseworker, who escorts him to a mandatory group home because his mother refuses to let him stay at home.
Defying the court order, Zachary refuses to stay in the group home and escapes to the streets of Marseille. Wisely, he returns to the trouble that got him locked up in the first place by hooking up with his literal gang of friends at a local salon including Ryad (Idir Azougli). Fresh out of juvie, Zachary has a problem finding a job and finding a place to stay. Rejected by the salon for work, Ryad gives Zachary a fistful of hash to sell and offers to pay for a night with one of the local prostitutes. This is where Zachary meets Shéhérazade (Kenza Fortas), who agrees to give Zachary a little bit of fun.
The encounter does not go well. Zachary manages to insult Shéhérazade, and she escapes with Zachary’s hash as he undresses. Zachary hunts her down, but not until after she sells the stolen hash. The two somehow become friends, and Shéhérazade agrees to let Zachary stay at her place with her transgendered roommate Zelda (Sofia Bentoumi).
“…with mixed-feelings, Zachary becomes her defacto pimp, sharing the proceeds of this and subsequent encounters.”
The next morning Shéhérazade takes Zachary to the street so she can work. She is approached by three young men, who want to “party.” Shéhérazade asks Zachary to come with her for protection, and with mixed-feelings, Zachary becomes her defacto pimp, sharing the proceeds of this and subsequent encounters.
This working relationship between Zachary and Shéhérazade becomes complicated as Zachary develops deeper feelings for her, while conflicted about helping continue with her job. Matters get worse when hanging out with Ryad and his friends, as Ryad asks Zachary for a night with Shéhérazade. Zachary tells Ryad to ask her, who in turn refuses Ryad’s proposition. Ryad is incensed this “whore” will sleep with anyone but him. The result is a series of events that would wind up as an episode on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
There’s a lot going on in Marlin’s Shéhérazade. You start with a story about the plight of French youth caught in the cycle of crime—jail, release, and back to jail again. It’s a hopeless cycle of crime and poverty, it seems every young adult is destined for a life of crime be it drugs, gangs, or prostitution. Those are your options, so pick one.
But then there’s this love story that just clicks at the end. There’s no way in a story like this a romance between an angry, impulsive Zachary could ever work with a woman who with trust issues. But it does, and it sneaks up on you when it really shouldn’t. I’ll admit the “love” got to me, but I can understand you won’t. On the pages of the script, it could come across as forced, but thanks to good direction, editing, and the performances by Robert and Fortas this love story works.
Shéhérazade (2018) Directed by Jean-Bernard Marlin. Written by Jean-Bernard Marlin, Catherine Paillé. Starring Dylan Robert, Kenza Fortas, Idir Azougli. Shéhérazade screened at the 2019 Palm Springs International Film Festival.
7 out of 10 stars