Mixed-Race Dynamics and the French Road Movie: Drôle de Félix (Martineau & Ducastel, 2000)

The second feature film from directors Jacques Martineau and Olivier Ducastel takes as its protagonist Félix (Sami Bouajila), a youthful thirty-something homosexual man of European and North-African descent who lives in Dieppe with his white partner Daniel (Pierre-Loup Rajot).  The film’s narrative begins after his mother’s death; while clearing out her home, Félix happens upon a Pandora’s box of letters from his absent father in Marseilles and decides to find him.

The people Félix meets on his road trip are introduced and sectioned into separate but related stories by intertitles – e.g. ‘My Little Brother’ – and through automatic friendships they combine to create an imagined white family for him (reinforcing the idea of the nation as a mono-racial group into which the Other must assimilate).  They offer us a serialised version of his life on the road, thus structuring the film like an Austen novel and placing it in the modern context of the melodrama, as mirrored by Félix’s favourite soap opera Luxure et volupté

Félix’s shift from social membership to minoritised exclusion reflects the thematic concerns of the genres that combine in Drôle de Félix: the melodrama, Western and road movie.  In concurrence with Robert Warshow’s theory of the Western, Félix’s adventure is also an exploration of masculine identity, as seen in the violence he witnesses, his assumption of responsibility, and his reunion with his ‘father’ at the end of the film.  Drôle de Félix can also be read in John Cawelti’s theoretical terms; through its repeated depiction, the film questions the role of violence in society and its impact on marginalised communities. 

In Rouen, Félix observes a racially motivated murder.  He is attacked and warned off going to the police: “you haven’t seen anything. No one will believe an Arab anyway”.  Arriving at the station he sees a brown-skinned handcuffed man being led away by a police officer and flees the scene.  The sequence shatters the illusion of post-racial meritocracy which has marked the first leg of Félix’s journey, forcing him to engage with racialisation, institutional discrimination and his own suppressed fears of police brutality. 

References to lynchings and boycotts recall US narratives, with the tension reaching its climax when Félix is involved in a car crash.  Once the cars collide, the driver insults his ‘sister’ Isabelle (Ascaride) and calls Félix a “f*ggot” when he tries to intervene.  Félix pushes back: “why not call me a dirty Arab?” and is assaulted.  Sexual and racial oppression are paralleled in this exposition of the intersections of racism, misogyny and homophobia underlying white supremacist violence.

Félix’s singular hybridity as a mixed-race man is used to undermine established concepts of personal and national identity.  As Giles Deleuze noted of the intellectual nomad, Félix’s identity is founded on non-fixity and transgressive transnationality: ‘the life of the nomad is the intermezzo… He is a vector of deterritorialisation’ (1986 cited in Braidotti, 1994: 23).  As he exercise his geographic mobility, moving from the Celtic-inflected North to the African-adjacent South, Félix represents the national identity of France as multiple, an affect of deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation. 

While Félix is contextualised within white France (he is mirrored in a Freudian sense by his lover, who’s appearance bookends the film and who replaces Félix’s late white mother as his main source of stability and security), he is still perceived as a black/Arabic man by mainstream white French society.  This contradiction of identity results in the shattering of the non-white imago by the mirror of white society (see Fanon, 1986).  Félix’s sense of self is so fractured by this experience that he eventually cries to his ‘sister’:  “Do I look like I’m from Normandy?… Do I look like I’ve done something wrong?  Do I look like a thief?… Do I look like a murderer?”.  His outburst expresses his containment by the white gaze, as an object of scopophilic pleasure, exoticised and sexualised, as well as a symbol of threat.

The road trip, or nomadic event, to paraphrase Deleuze, enables Félix to take control of his own narrative, becoming a ‘co-actor’ in his engagement with social systems.  He tells his ‘sister’ and then the police about the murder he witnessed, leading to the killers’ arrest.  After fleeting affairs, comic adventures and wild nights out, the film ends with him reunited with his lover, having created a family of female elders and male peers without the need for a patriarch.

Félix’s road trip is a metaphor for self-exploration and revelation – as the personal nature of the film’s title suggests.  As in the remembrance phase of World Cinema, the long takes and wide shots of the cinematic frame become Félix’s and the spectator’s site of reflection. Like Agnés Varda’s tale of a female nomad (Vagabond from 1985), Drôle de Félix promotes freedom of movement and expression without essentialism or sentimentality.  It could be compared to Easy Rider (Hopper, USA, 1969), for its representation of a subculture’s search for meaning and identity through the masculine body, or indeed, Manuel Poirier’s 1997 film, Western

In its representation of interracial homosexual love, Drôle de Félix can be read as a French extension of the New Queer Cinema of the 1990s – an American independent film movement primarily written and directed by white gay men (see Aaron, 2004, Hernandez, 2008) – and specifically of its representation of mixed couples in films such as Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss (O’Haver, 1998) and Trick (Fall, 1999).  Like these films, Drôle de Félix normalises its homosexual protagonist, yet in a departure from binaried American narratives, it does the same for interracial love.

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