There’s a Romany word for the turmoil and trauma that Étienne Comar’s Django is set against: porajmos. It means ‘the devouring’. This apt term is used to describe the abrupt disappearance and systematic murder of gypsies in Europe. At the hands of the Nazis, it’s estimated that up to 50 per cent of the Roma and Sinti population were killed.

Poster for Django Reinhardt biopic DjangoIt’s within the rising horror of this historical moment that director Comar drops us into the life of legendary guitar player Django Reinhardt. Born in a caravan and proud of his Romany roots, Reinhardt is credited with inventing ‘gypsy jazz’. In the 1930s, he played alongside luminaries like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Lightning-fast and boldly ahead of his time, he lived and performed in Occupied Paris under the watchful – if begrudgingly admiring – eye of the Nazis.

The stylistic rhythm of Django is familiar, particularly when concerned with the artist’s musical career. He boozes, philanders and dazzles adoring audiences as they crowd a grand Parisian music hall to see him play. Much attention is given to examining Django’s magical ‘plucking’ style and close-ups of his injured but deft hands. Actor Reda Kateb fills the frame through much of the film’s duration, lending an air of rascal charm and stubborn pride to the role. His elderly mother (Bimbam Merstein), who speaks almost entirely in the Romany language, is a tough-as-nails matriarch whose frailty belies her fearsome temper.

As Django performs for crowds of Nazi officers, he initially shrugs off the contradictory situation he finds himself in. He thinks of himself merely as an entertainer with no business in politics. So long as he and his family are living well, artistic responsibility is not his main concern. But his myopia is not purely borne of selfishness. ‘This is a Gadjo [non-gypsy] war. Gypsies didn’t wage this war,’ he says adamantly. His long-marginal outsider status doesn’t easily allow him to join any cause. The enormity of the threat is difficult to grasp.

There’s one quiet tableau shot, set in a doomed gypsy encampment, that may be the film’s most lingering image. Django stands by a dissipating campfire, looking down at it contemplatively. His wife Naguine, heavily pregnant and wrapped up against the grey winter chill, stands on the step of their wagon, watching him. The two lock eyes across the short distance. Their horses have been stolen, their people rounded up and sterilized – and this last physical fragment of their home and culture will soon be devoured too. Comar’s camera is eerily still.

To encompass Reinhardt’s huge cultural impact – as well as the overwhelming survivor’s guilt he must carry – is to make vivid both the strength and the suffering of his people. In this, Django is compelling. There’s an urgent impetus at the heart of this film, far beyond the realm of either period biopic or history lesson. Django takes on the perspective of what remains one of the most maligned ethnic groups of Europe. In so doing, it tells a story both triumphant and tragic.”

– Christina Newland, Sight and Sound

1943. Dans toute l’Europe, les tsiganes se font persécuter et massacrer. Mais en plein coeur de Paris, l’un des membres les plus connus de la communauté tsigane continue de vivre en plein jour sans être inquiété. Django Reinhardt enflamme tous les soirs les Folies Bergères avec son swing enflammé. Sa popularité auprès des Français et des Allemands lui permet de pouvoir vivre à Paris sans problème. Un jour, Docteur Jazz lui demande de réaliser une série de concerts à Berlin. Des concerts auxquels assisterait Hitler. Fleurant le piège, Django Reinhardt décide de fuir en Suisse. Avec l’aide de la femme qu’il aime, Louise de Klerk, il part à Thonon-les-Bains pour tenter de traverser la frontière qui le mènera jusqu’à la liberté. Malheureusement, les choses ne se passeront pas comme prévues, et Django se retrouvera en plein coeur d’une guerre qui n’est pas la sienne.

Le premier film d’Étienne Comar est mené d’une main de maître par Reda Kateb. L’acteur parvient à éviter le simple mimétisme pour incarner un Reinhardt à la fois fort de sa musique mais affaibli par une guerre à laquelle il ne veut pas prendre part.

Si la réalisation pêche par un excès de classicisme, Étienne Comar a su utiliser la musique mythique de Django Reinhardt à bon escient. En ouvrant son film par un swing endiablé, le réalisateur a insufflé un souffle énergique dès l’introduction. Mais c’est surtout le Lacrimosa final sur le ‘Requiem pour mes frères tsiganes’ qui confère un aspect véritablement solennel à une oeuvre finalement inégale.

– Louise-Camille Bouttier,


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