After watching Guillaume Brac’s À l’abordage, it’s clear society needs to stop romanticizing the summer fling. People in the thralls of one never seem to get the memo: it’s only meant to be temporary. Tell that to these dazed and confused lovesick characters, set on a perfunctory romantic getaway in the southern French countryside. The young adults depicted are riddled with problematic behavior, antiquated views on relationships and yet devote themselves to these passionate, seasonal encounters. Screenwriters Catherine Paillé and the aforementioned Brac prove that no matter what generation you belong to, diving headlong into guaranteed heartache is emotional masochism.
What could have been a spiritual cousin to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise is cut short after a pair of lovestruck strangers oversleep in a Parisian park. During a night of outdoor partying, Félix (Eric Nantchouang) meets Alma (Asma Messaoudene) and dance the night away, enraptured by each other’s energy. The next morning, Alma rushes to make her train on time, but not departing without leaving behind a vital piece of information: the location of her hometown. A frequent hotspot for campers and families looking to cool off in the community pool all summer, Félix wastes no time being part of the tourist herd.
This adventure is not to be traveled alone, however. Félix brings his best mate Chérif (Salif Cissé) along for the road trip. Although slightly more protected by the diversity of Parisian culture, the all-white river town does nothing to shield these two young Black men from being viewed as contrasting “otherness.”
Even after reconnecting with Alma, she gives a lame excuse to Félix for not introducing him to her parents. She emphasizes that they have no problem with the color of his skin, but the unspoken truth is how uncomfortable she would be to put her family in a position to feign acceptance. Moreover, Alma wants nothing to do with Félix after their one-night affair, adding to the historic pattern of fetishizing people of color and then declining any deeper connection. Based on Alma’s snooty dismissal, it seems boldness and carefree abandon is only reserved for white hopeless romantics.
The problem with the screenplay is how it tries to “both sides” the racial divide when it comes to communication breakdown. It leans into gross stereotyping, depicting Félix as intense whether he gets his way or not, including two separate physical incidents with Alma. He even goads her into calling the police on him after refusing to leave her family’s property. These moments are uncomfortable and tone-deaf, sending confusing messages about men’s refusal to take “no” for an answer, yet dumping the entire gender flaw on a Black male. Sadly, À l’abordage believes having a jaunty attitude absolves it of responsibly unpacking its underlying racial themes.
Thankfully, the supporting cast is given greater depth than the mismatched duo who spurred this amorous journey in the first place. Chérif builds a strong bond with a mother (Lucie Gallo) and her infant daughter during the trip, though he fears he’s viewed as a platonic babysitter. The conclusion of their shared arc produces a mixed reaction, especially given its abruptness, though it’s clear Brac hopes he’s cast a spell of optimism on his audience by the story’s end. If only life were as agreeable as the various life-changing rendezvous seen here. Best in show is Edouard (Édouard Sulpice), Félix, and Chérif’s rideshare driver, who gets entangled in the summer excursion after his car suffers brake damage during the ride into town. Constricted to two tiny tents with only his mother’s curtains as blanket comforters, Edouard and his merry passengers endure the hardship of life outside Paris’s safe luxury.
Even though it meditates on the complications of a wet, hot, European summer romance, À l’abordage (which translates to “All Hands on Deck”) is bogged down by archaic views of gender/racial intersection. Netflix’s own Emily in Paris has received plenty of flack for its reductive view of French culture, yet this French-directed narrative does nothing to dispel the show’s assertion that love is viewed as a rude game to conquer.