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Youthful Offender

Céline Nieszawer

Arthur Rambo (2021)

It’s really, really annoying to see a movie try to make a sociological point when it doesn’t understand the meaning of its own plot in the first place. This is a trap a lot of people fall into when they are talking about social media that they don’t use themselves. Reading about Twitter is not the same thing as being on Twitter. Lurking on the site is not the same thing as being an active user. And there is a colossal difference in being torn to pieces over a misunderstanding, or after deliberately poking the bear. But you’d think you’d get all that cleared up before going to the trouble of making a movie about it.

As it happens here: Young writer Karim D. (Rabah Nait Oufella) is having the night of his life. His new book, a novel based on his mother’s experiences of immigrating to France from Algeria, has received such acclaim he gets to spend an hour on television being gently interviewed about it. As he goes back to his publisher’s, where a large party is being thrown in his honor, everyone stops for a selfie and to congratulate him on his achievement. He works the room, then goes to the balcony for some air. When he checks his phone it all comes crashing down.

The news is out: As a teenager Karim had a Twitter account, under the pseudonym Arthur Rambo, on which he tweeted nothing but the most racist, sexist, violent, despicable, disgusting thoughts imaginable. Sickipedia on a feed, and an obvious pun on Arthur Rimbaud, the enfant terrible who wrote some of France’s greatest literature by age 20 before abandoning poetry entirely. The backlash online is furious, instant and unanimous – these tweets are repulsive and Karim D. is canceled. Once everyone at the publishing house checks their own phones, they are shocked! Except, ah, for the people who knew about the tweets! Because that’s how Karim built his reputation and got the attention of the publishing world in the first place!

The rest of the movie is a 24-hour debate between everyone in Karim’s life about what the consequences should be. To his credit, Karim does not try to weasel out of responsibility for the things he said, and Mr. Oufella does the most he can with an essentially unplayable part. He steadfastly maintains that the attention-grabbing tweets were harmless, obvious jokes, and no one would be fool enough to take them seriously. But some of his colleagues are upset that he’s made everyone of color look bad, and his friends with whom he runs a pirate radio station are furious he’s tainted their careers by association. His girlfriend can’t reconcile his vile comments about women with the sweet guy she thought him to be. His mother is disappointed that her story now won’t be taken seriously, but it’s his younger brother’s reaction that stings the worst. At least, it’s meant to. But by the time the brothers have their argument in an abandoned apartment the audience’s eyes are rolling down the block.

Director Laurent Cantet, who co-wrote the script with Fanny Burdino and Samuel Doux, is trying to have his cake and eat it. It should have been either that the shocking little edgelord really shocked everybody by maturing into a sensitive and thoughtful writer, or that Arthur Rambo was a forgotten teenage game none of his business associates knew about. By making the publishers previously aware of the tweets, they are complicit in the attitudes expressed within and their whole reaction to the backlash is a gross attempt to duck responsibility. It’s not entirely clear why this is the angle taken. Why couldn’t the publisher just have said nothing and let it be entirely on Karim’s head? Or been thrilled that the scandal was going to get the book even more attention?

A smarter movie would have hung Karim out to dry over an actual misunderstanding and worked to show how far the protections of power will be extended to outsiders. Or, if Mr. Cantet really wanted to poke the bear of French liberalism, these could have been genuine racist – or for a random example not based on any world-famous writers, transphobic – beliefs that Karim felt entitled to express publicly. Those movies would have involved a true reckoning with someone’s personal and public selves in the court of public opinion. This attempt at a middle road just spirals into more and more righteous silliness, with a think-of-the-children finale that resolves absolutely nothing. The power of sloganeering and the ability of social media to whip a frenzy into a shitstorm deserves a better reckoning than this.


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