Arthur Rambo: How a malicious virtual footprint quickly destroyed a promising reality
The tyranny of social media rears its ugly head in Laurent Cantet’s latest social drama to play at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, about a wunderkind author whose career implodes after old, hateful tweets resurface.
Loosely based on the controversy surrounding media personality Mehdi Meklat, the drama reunites the French director with Rabah Nait Oufella, the Franco-Algerian actor who made his film debut as a teenager in Canet’s 2008 Palme d’Or-winner The Class. Oufella has since popped up in indie darlings Raw and Girlhood from Julia Ducournau and Celina Sciamma, respectively, but now he takes the lead as this Gen Z cause célèbre with quiet charm, control and fragility.
Karim D. is a fresh voice in the Parisian literary scene. He built a career as a young activist and citizen journalist via a YouTube channel he set up with his friends out of the low-income housing estate where he grew up with his mother and younger brother.
"Where is the line between online and offline identities? When does provocation go too far? Can we forgive the impact of words even if they were intended in parodical jest?"
Now, he’s earning acclaim for his debut Débarquement, a personal novel exploring the insecurity of dual French and Arab identity through the story of his mother and her journey from Algeria to France.
The critics love him. The public does too especially those from the French-Arab diaspora who finally feel seen and heard through Karim’s articulation of their fears and frustrations of being frequently Othered in a still unaccepting society. His white publishers can’t get enough either and are wasting no time in ordering a fresh print run, booking TV appearances and setting up a film adaptation. Swaggering from TV studios to a bar with his writing peers to a glitzy bash at his publishing house, Karim is clearly getting high off the hype but Cantet doesn’t waste any time throwing a spanner in the works.
As the partying continues, profane tweets containing jokes reeking of antisemitism, homophobia, fatphobia and basically every form of hate speech imaginable, flash across the screen with increasing frequency. Their author is “Arthur Rambo” (a play on Arthur Rimbaud maybe?), an online personality with 200,000 followers revealed to be the pseudonym for Karim when he was a teen trying to provoke France’s bourgeois. Well, his incendiary tweets have finally earned a reaction with his fall from grace all but assured in an unforgiving online world.
Cantet and co-writers Fanny Burdino and Samuel Doux focus on several complex moral issues. A cutthroat scene with Karim’s white publishing team exposes the cynicism embedded in the French establishment as they quickly employ crisis management etiquette in order to save the bottom line and distance themselves from the young writer they had just been celebrating.
The fickle nature of friendship and the self-serving pursuit of popularity punctuates later sequences with lovers, friends, and peers. Backs are turned as charged discussions highlight class and racial tensions. These conversations might be contrived but the naturalistic direction, dialogue and hand-held camera shots make them feel like they could be taking place at any point across the world, let alone France, right now.
Where is the line between online and offline identities? When does provocation go too far? Can we forgive the impact of words even if they were intended in parodical jest? Cantet provokes so many questions and creates a meaningful space in the grey area of life for this complex debate to take place. He does not attempt to absolve Karim of responsibility or minimise the impact of the words he tweeted, but through emotional conversations with his mother and brother, the young Arab man’s frustration and deep-seated anger are contextualised and one can feel some empathy in his swift rejection from the literary class that turns him into an outsider once again.
Oufella communicates Karim’s hubris with subtle conviction but it’s when he’s suddenly forced to interrogate his own influence and motivations that his performance becomes even more compelling. One that simmers over in a cathartic third act. He and Cantet hit a nerve and the result is a rigorously intelligent cautionary tale for the social media age.
Hanna Flint is a freelance film and TV critic, writer and interviewer who writes for The Guardian, Total Film, Time Out, Syfy, Yahoo Movies, SyFy and other international outlets.
Follow her here: @HannaFlint