“You learn patience,” Clemence Collombet (Isabelle Huppert), the mayor of a Parisian suburb tells a party chairman in “Promises,” indulging him on a social call as he drones on and rakes her mind for a witty rejoinder. As with most things, the dinner invite is a result of a longtime friendship, but Clemence, bringing along her chief of staff Yazid (Reda Kateb), is there to inevitably talk about the impending end to her time in office and even as she preaches calm, her own is wearing thin. Still, she has to be personable when political headway is made in back rooms like this out of personal considerations, an irony that director Thomas Kruithof relishes as the decisions that are made in office are increasingly devoid of any human factor.
Kruithof and co-writer Jean-Baptiste Delafon certainly never lose sight of it, creating a rich ensemble drama about the gears of power grinding away as Clemence hopes to end her tenure on a high note with the €63 million renovation of Les Bernadins, a neighborhood in desperate need of repair. After 20 years, there’s momentum with the federal government to finally allocate the resources needed, but to do so requires the Owners Association to pay dues as they have for years without seeing a return and an activist tired of being taken for granted decides at this inopportune time to take a stand, making strange bedfellows with a low-level hood who has been a beneficiary of Les Bernadins derelict conditions, renting out a share of the property to desperate refugees who can be crowded into cramped flats without arousing suspicion.
While the lack of clarity works against anything being achieved, Kruithof sees things crystal clear, refreshingly unconcerned with the moral motivations of characters when all are more or less inclined to do the right thing within their power, but how willing they are to test what power they have, fearful that overextending themselves could result in losing it. This concern is particularly acute for Clemence, who has likely gotten as far as she has politically when she’s had no ambitions beyond serving the residents of her city to threaten other local leaders, but when an offer comes to potentially join the Prime Minister’s cabinet, the mere prospect of having greater authority changes her demeanor with the always intriguingly ambivalent Huppert able to make every subtle change in expression inspire curiosity.
While the particulars of how government functions isn’t important to those in Les Bernadins who just want to get their leaky building fixed and how the pipes have broke aren’t of interest to Clemence, only aware of as many details as Yazid (played by a superbly transactional Kateb) is willing to give her, capable of handling any dirty work both in the neighborhood or in the ivory towers of government, every detail becomes important to Kruithof when passion and political will are intertwined and how someone, whether a bureaucratic middle manager or an indifferent tenant, is feeling on a given day could make the difference in enabling a huge community project to come to pass. Every moment has power when it feels as if the people inside of each one do, whether they recognize it or not.
“Promises” will screen at the Venice Film Festival on September 1st at 10:10 pm at the Teatro Piccolo Arsenale and 10:40 pm at the Arena Lido.