The Truk, and that’s with a k for ‘ketamine’, is a potent first time feature from French director Sarah Marx. Following young ex-con Ulysse as he leaves jail and tries to pay his mother’s care bill, this film punches well above its weight and delivers a convincing and nervy portrait of France in crisis.
Marx’s Paris is reminiscent of the New York depicted in the Safdie brothers' 2017 breakout hit Good Time. Both films also share intimately shot street scenes, scams gone wrong and protagonists caught between sick family members and the law. The film opens with Ulysse in prison, confident and mischievous, arguing with the guards and hanging out with his cellmate. Soon, however, he is granted an early release: and all his problems begin. Fixed, full-time employment is a prerequisite of Ulysse’s early release. Luckily, his friend David (Alexis Manenti) has a gig for them both to sell burgers at a festival near Poitiers. However, the ex-girlfriend (Virginie Acaries) whom he has cajoled into caring for his clinically depressed mother (Sandrine Bonnaire) wants to quit now he’s out of prison. Additionally, she wants several thousand Euros Ulysse owes her in backpay. Unable to care for his mother while working, unable to pay for care without working, Ulysse is forced to gamble that he can manage to make enough money before his mother, left on her own, hurts herself. “Give me time to arrive”, asks Ulysse, as David pours out his custody troubles: but no-one will give Ulysse time. His release conditions, the fee the professional carers want, his mother’s vulnerability, all are non-negotiable.
In The Truk, everyone is in debt, everyone is barely keeping their head above the water. Neither David nor Ulysse will make the money they need by simply selling burgers from their food-truck. David has arranged a deal with the farmer whose land the festival is on and the local veterinarian; they will supply the ketamine and Ulysse will sell it from the food truck. Unfortunately nothing is certain here; the people you make a deal with one week have gone into hiding the next, different factions compete to rip off the Parisians first. The hard-eyed, diminutive farmworker (the excellent Lauréna Thellier), who, tall as she is, arrives on a quad bike, is ripping off the vet. In the absence of a functioning economy, and driven by voracious debt, everything has been re-tuned and redirected to try and scrape as much value from it as possible: farmland is rented to a music festival, veterinarians sell party drugs and worry about PETA, burger trucks sell K-laced beer, romantic partners are co-opted into looking after sick family. The state itself is arbitrary and pervasive: roadblocks and random searches on unlit country roads, undercover police materialising from nowhere and snatching people off the street.
The screenplay for The Truk was the result of a collaboration between Marx and the film’s producers, Ekoué Labitey and Hamé Bourokba. In France they are known as rappers, members of political radical banlieu collective Le Rumeur, who won an eight year legal battle with Sarkozy in 2010; as Minister of the Interior he had accused them of “defaming the National Police”. Since that victory they have expanded into television and film, with The Truk being their second feature. They have known 28 year old lead Sandor Funtek (Blue Is the Warmest Colour, Dheepan) for 15 years, mentoring him in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, where they all grew up. They introduced him to Marx, who cast him instantly and invited him to take part in the script development. Marx herself had previously worked on short films with prisoners in the French penal system and the early scenes of Ulysse bitching at the guards and scrolling Instagram with his cellmate feel completely natural. Marx gives a light, believable tempo to these young men’s interactions, making them quickly sketched individuals rather than part of the scenery.
Beautifully shot, with a cold blue palette instantly familiar to anyone who has woken up hungover in Paris, the film impresses by expanding its depiction to include a whole society rather than contracting in to focus on one character. Instead of zooming in on the protagonist’s pathologies and reducing its scope to that of a character portrait, the film seeks to diagnose something wrong with a large part of French society. Thanks to this, Ulysse is an everyman rather than a Patrick Bateman, and when he says “I’m sick of clenching my teeth” he is speaking for a whole generation.
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