benbarkaTVLN05-20-08This is only available on region 2 DVD, so you’ll have to go some place fun like Cinefile for J’ai vu tuer Ben Barka (2005). But it’s worth the hunt. It’s a fine conspiracy thriller, taking its cue from the 1969 (Mehdi) Ben Barka affair, ever a sore subject in France and with obvious contemporary resonance: Barka was a militant Moroccan politician with unusual power on the international diplomatic stage, expected to unite an increasingly dissatisfied – and independence-minded – third world. Although suspicion fell squarely on French government agencies, no satisfactory solution was ever forthcoming to his permanent disappearance in October 1969.

A partially fictionalised account, therefore, Peron and Smihi’s film keeps the audience in the same uneasy state of ignorance as to what exact forces are at work and in what directions. Narrated by the corpse of small-time hood, PR man and budding film producer Georges Figon (Charles Berling), it focuses on four protagonists at one remove from the main conspirators: Figon and his girlfriend, and Marguerite Duras (Josiane Balasko) and Georges Franju (Jean-Pierre Leaud), with whom Figon is planning a film. As the last two suggest (along with the narrative conceit), there is a fundamental cinephilia at work, channeled through director Balasko and the talismanic presence of Leaud himself, as well as the cool gangster moves (unslavishly) evocative of Melville, accompanied by the appropriate hats, coats and cars, jazz and sunglasses, and the tough underbelly of 1960s cinema-Paris.

Meetings with various shadowy figures, and his perpetual compulsion to make a quick buck, lead Figon into a far deeper conspiracy than he imagined: with further clandestine telephone calls he’s setting Barka up for a fatal encounter with the French police. The prize at stake is nothing less than global decolonialisation on the one hand, or the preservation of the western capitalist hegemony on the other: Barka is more than once referred to as anti-American and the otherwise tight script is a little heavy-handed in its modern parallels, the dialogue occasionally clunky and dogmatic. Wider implications aside however, the focus is mainly on the foot soldiers of the conspiracy, excellently cast like a mob of 40s gangsters, and as Figon becomes more peripheral to their overall plan, our information as to what is afoot behind the scenes becomes as restricted as his, reinforcing the sense of his mounting confusion and (not ill-founded) paranoia.

Berling’s strength in the role is to present a singularly banal exterior – by his own admission, that of a country notary – and to convince immediately as the venal and self-serving reform-school boy who has spent his whole life on the make. Perpetually uptight, he carries the film so well that even at his most weasley, our sympathy is never lost; we already know he’ll get his comeuppance, and although he brings it upon himself through an incessant playing of both ends against the middle and an ill-advised if lucrative chat with the press – “j’ai vu tuer Ben Barka” – he is the little guy crushed by the all-powerful and unknowable machine of global political skulduggery. The playing is neatly effective throughout – Balasko’s Duras in particular – appropriate to the seamless blending of fiction with fact, while the documentary elements that bookend the film keep in mind that, even as we listen to the voice-over of a corpse, what we are watching is at least extrapolated from real events – the incident retains the sinister aura of mystery and international conspiracy that surrounds it in real life, a reminder that the political problems addressed by Barka and perpetuated by his abduction, remain still largely unresolved today.