I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed
2005Director: Serge Le Péron, Saïd Smihi
Cast: Charles Berling, Simon Abkarian, Josiane Balasko
y name is Georges Figon. Okay I'm dead but, being the talkative kind, death isn't going to stop me from speaking. Yes, I'm a shady individual. Sure I have links with the underworld and other dark forces. But luring Ben Barka, the Moroccan opposition leader, into a trap was mainly an opportunity for me to become a great movie producer.”
So begins the complex, badly told tale of the kidnapping and probable elimination of the radical Moroccan politician Ben Barka. The promising opening, with Georges Figon, face down, a bullet hole in the back, borrowing the never-bettered gimmick of the deceased narrator from Sunset Boulevard, is so neatly conveyed and intriguing that it sets a standard the rest of the soupy narrative cannot sustain.
We follow the interesting and unreliable narrator Figon through the artistic and criminal underworld of Paris, weaving his way through flunkies and frauds like a flailing, anxiety-ridden version of Sidney Falco from Sweet Smell of Success. Figon finds himself embroiled in a CIA / French Secret Service attempt to kill the dangerous Barka under the pretence of making a documentary about him, to be written by Marguerite Duras and directed by the ghostly Georges Franju.
The best thing about this film is undoubtedly Jean-Pierre Léaud’s disquieting performance as Franju. Whether or not it’s a natural likeness, his depiction of the great director as a flaky, fey depressive provides the film with its only truly comic and chilling moments. The main irritation of this film is the unnecessary and totally distracting way in which it is told. For seemingly no sensible reason, the narrative is chopped out of sequence and told and retold from different perspectives.
It’s not that this makes the film confusing, films rarely are in the true sense. I have always been amazed that films such as Memento or Fight Club retain the distinction of being “complex” when really everything is constantly explained to you before the big explanation at the end of it all. Rather, comparable films such as All the President’s Men or Cutter’s Way or The Parallax View are genuinely complex in their handling and exploration of their subject matter.
I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed would have benefited from a linear narrative, tightening its focus on the intricacies and motivations therein. The Parallax View is a prime example of a film that travels seamlessly from points A to B, complicating itself intriguingly with the fundamentals of its narrative. On the other hand, the directors of Ben Barka have taken the relatively straightforward tale of Barka’s abduction and tried to imbue it with a damaging and demeaning convolution, forcing the plot around the inappropriate noir devices used by much more successful and accomplished films like Out of the Past and Citizen Kane.
Undoubtedly a story that should be told, interesting in its own right, this feels like a wasted opportunity to bring a truly relevant and politically urgent pocket of erased history to an international audience. I knew nothing of the event before the film and I do not feel satisfied by the narrow and self-reflexive account provided. The directors may have a theoretically plausible Godard-inspired relationship with cinema, but it makes for an uninvolving experience. That’s always the trouble with Godard for me. On one level, I appreciate what he’s doing and it may cause frisson amongst the critics and theorists, yet I think to myself, “That’s great, now make the damn film good.”
It’s easier to mess around with formats and approaches than it is to make a perfectly sealed and engrossing narrative work on a number of levels. It’s easy to be unconventional, especially if the dominant convention is the perfectly honed, economical, and entertaining Hollywood narrative. The story of Ben Barka is too good to be fooled around with. It deserves a more sympathetic treatment by level-headed storytellers.
I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed is currently playing in the UK.