Film Review: Petites Mains (Striking the Palace)

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Film Review: Petites Mains (Striking the Palace)
It may seem ironic for a director of immigrant stock to make a traditional, even primordial kind of French movie like Petites Mains (Striking the Palace). Or maybe not so ironic. Petites Mains (literally “little hands” — basically “the help”) is about the people doing manual labor of the type now labelled “immigrant work”. Here it’s the maintenance staff in a five-star luxury hotel called a palace. But hard physical work still remains, while we’re not yet totally robotized and AI’d, the heart of a nation’s soul. Director Nessim Chikhaoui pulls out the stops on this film social, and the result can sometimes be moralistic, corny, and sentimental, but it works. Wonderfully. The controlling story arc involves, unsurprisingly, a strike. The employees are not striking for vague demands, as sometimes seems the case in France, or for more money and benefits. The workers want to be recognized as workers — to be “internalized”, and not considered as human fodder supplied by anonymous outsourcing companies. On another level, it’s about the employees simply wanting hotel management to talk to them, even if it’s to disagree. The movie resembles Norma Rae, Martin Ritt’s film (with Sally Field) about unionizing a textile plant in the American South. Aside from that film, Hollywood social films (think Nomadland) tend to be fuzzy. French artists (think Zola’s J’Accuse) can be devastatingly direct. At the same time, in not only depicting the plight of the have-nots but trying to appeal to the masses as an audience, such filmmakers are often shameless in providing low-brow entertainment. This is not the middle-class social cinema of Robert Guédiguian or the Dardennes brothers (or Ken Loach in the UK), whose sympathetic, humanistic approach sometimes feels a bit distanced and resigned. Petites Mains.. Michael Crotto – Albertine Productions – Prima Vista Films And so Petites Mains features a plucky young woman, Eva (Lucie Charles-Alfred), who’s had a rough time of it and starts her professional life working at the hotel. It’s partially a device to show, as an older woman teaches her the ropes, the ins-and-outs of how the employees work: paid by the room, strict deadlines, rules about how to look (a woman who’s dyed her hair green is forced to don a wig). Eva, needless to say, meets a handsome young guy (Abdallah Charki) also working at l’Aston, and we follow their rather hoked-up romance. The older woman, Simone (marvelously played by a crusty Corinne Masiero), suffers from a leg problem and is being pushed towards retirement. Cheap labor comes at a steep physical cost: Another employee has also suffered a debilitating injury, and a burnt-out employee whose husband seems to be unemployed must deal with him and her brood of kids on one hand, her desire to join the strike on the other. Fortunately the social soap opera is mixed with heaps of comedy both physical and verbal, as well as numerous feel-good moments. Ms. Charles-Alfred is a very talented young actress with the slightly pudgy good looks of Adele Exarchopoulos or Scarlett Johansson, but with a more vulnerable presence. Her character can show flashes of anger, desperation, determination, coquettishness. She’s an old-fashioned “trouper” who if she could sing could be compared to Selena Gomez or a young Barbra Streisand (her version of an African dance isn’t too bad). Our sympathetic side identifies with her, our experienced side with the hard-nosed get-on-with-it attitude of Simone (with her dollops of exasperation but also concern for others). Petites Mains. Albertine Productions – Prima Vista Films
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Lead photo credit : Petites Mains.. Michael Crotto - Albertine Productions - Prima Vista Films

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Dimitri Keramitas was born and raised in Connecticut, USA, and was educated at the University of Hartford, Sorbonne, and the University of London, and holds degrees in literature and law. He has lived in Paris for years, and directs a training company and translation agency. In addition, he has worked as a film critic for both print and on-line publications, including Bonjour Paris and France Today. He is a contributing editor to Movies in American History. In addition he is an award-winning writer of fiction, whose stories have been published in many literary journals. He is the director of the creative writing program at WICE, a Paris-based organization. He is also a director at the Paris Alumni Network, an organization linking together several hundred professionals, and is the editor of its newletter. The father of two children, Dimitri not only enjoys Paris living but returning to the US regularly and traveling in Europe and elsewhere.