Stéphane, dressed in his black-and-white waiter’s uniform, rushes up the stairs holding a silver dish. He emerges into a softly lit dining area, adorned with red-carpeted walls and glistening chandeliers. A man is there waiting for him, wearing a suit and standing stiffly with his hands behind his back. Stéphane places the dish down on the cart, and the man moves right behind him, breathing down Stéphane’s neck. Stéphane shrinks in the man’s shadow and hurries to pull a towel from underneath the dish. The man says nothing, but his rage is palpable.
The second Stéphane has pulled the towel away and disappeared back down the stairs, the man grabs the plate and spins around to a small table where two customers, dressed in their finest evening wear, sit. His face contorts as he softly apologizes, in English, for the delay. The customers purse their lips.
Quick and filled with purpose, this is one of many scenes in CITY OF LIGHT (LA VILLE LUMIÈRE) overflowing with similar tension. The short film by Pascal Tessaud follows 20-year-old Stéphane. He lives in Paris in his grandmother’s flat and has recently taken on a job as a waiter at his father’s upscale restaurant. As tensions at work grow higher and the duties of adult life come calling, Stéphane must make difficult choices about what is best for himself and his family.
Frontier Film Festival Gives Us A Story Full of Contrasts
CITY OF LIGHT begins in the bustling kitchen of Stéphane’s father’s restaurant. Pots clang; knives furiously chop onions, chives and lemons; sounds of sizzling pans and steaming dishes fill the air. Someone calls out an order and a chorus of voices respond, Oui, chef!
In comes Stéphane, wearing his uniform and following his boss, who is giving him various instructions about waiting tables. It is Stéphane’s first day. He is silent as the chaos of the kitchen builds around him. Within a few seconds, he is off, beginning his first shift.
We follow Stéphane from there. We watch as he is berated by impatient and stressed bosses. We watch Stéphane’s father, Philipot, come down to the wait staff’s locker room to force a wad of cash into Stéphane’s pocket in front of all of the other waiters, a wayward attempt at showing affection towards his son. After work one night, Stéphane and his coworkers walk to a club, and Philipot speeds past them in a silver sports car.
Philipot’s wealthy lifestyle stands in vivid contrast to that of Stéphane and his grandmother, Odette. The two share a small high-rise apartment and have very little of their own privacy. While Philipot has money, Stéphane and Odette have a deep and affectionate relationship. Their nights are spent watching TV together on the bed; and in the mornings, they talk over coffee. Their flat may be small, but it is cluttered with belongings and color. Their apartment's coziness is heightened by comparison with the coldness of the restaurant.
As the film progresses, it becomes clear that the work environment at the restaurant is not merely stressful, but abusive and discriminatory. The film comes to its climax when Stéphane witnesses Philipot treating a Black employee unfairly, and Stéphane takes drastic measures to vent his anger towards him.
CITY OF LIGHT is moving, with a sharp attention to detail—in just over 30 minutes, we come to know and care for Stéphane. While this film is powerful enough to recommend to any viewer, it might be especially enjoyable for francophiles and fans of subtle but bracing dramas.
Vincente Perez: Stéphane
Liliane Rovère: Odette
Jean-Paul Bathany: Philipot
Johana Cessiecq: Carmen
Moussa Mansaly: Jamal
M’Barek Belkouk: Redouane
Grégory Gadebois: Versini
Fatou N’Diaye: The client
Romain Ogerau: The manager
Abderrahmane Belacel: Abdelrahim
Christian Boyenval: The chef
Mebarek Benchelah: Yazid
Mourad Boudaoud: Norredine
Images courtesy of Frontier Film Festival
About the Author:
Nell Beck is a rising senior at Oberlin College, where she is pursuing a BA in English. At school, she is co-editor of the literary nonfiction magazine and eats in a dining co-op. Raised in Montclair, New Jersey, she is passionate about books, art, and writing. Looking ahead, she hopes to pursue an arts-related career, travel a lot, and become a better baker.