For our next French film review, as part of the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival currently running in Australia, Nic Sheehan reviews Nicolas Saada’s ‘Taj Mahal’.
When we see footage of terrorism, we attempt to put ourselves in the victim’s position. Sitting safe behind television screens, we watch people—complete strangers—flee for their lives. ‘Taj Mahal’ depicts the 2008 attacks on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai. The viewer is asked to revisit this attack, and put themselves once again into the shoes of the victims.
Cultural divides and impending disaster
This is not a story of valiant heroism, but one of helplessness. It sets out to remind us that victims and survivors of terrorism are just ordinary people put through an extraordinary ordeal. Unfortunately, director Nicolas Saada turns what should be a white-knuckled thriller into a mildly-interesting spectacle. It is a case where ‘Taj Mahal’ tries to say too much, in too few words.
The film follows Louise, an 18-year-old girl who moves to India with her parents. The hotel, their temporary home, is a cocoon of wealth insulated from the colour and chaos of the streets below. Day after teenage day, Louise becomes increasingly bored, smoking in her room and occasionally venturing onto the street. But this slow meandering pace is holding off impending disaster, keeping the audience in cautious suspense.
Twists of fate
It is only by a few small twists of fate that Louise is caught up in the attack. She is alone. The sounds of terror echo all around her: machine guns, screams, explosions. Real life gives way to a surreal, base-mode of survival.
As these events unfold, however, Louise does not convincingly change. The spectrum of human reaction—panic, confusion, disbelief, hysteria—remains relatively untouched as she scurries from bedroom to bathroom, and back again. But it’s not just Louise—her parents are also suspiciously unreactive. Whether this was intentional or not, it comes across as underwhelming.
A missed opportunity
To the film’s credit, the blend of French and English is seamless, smooth and natural. For non-French speakers, it is easy to flick between the spoken word and on-screen subtitles. This smoothness extends to the films editing and construction—nothing is particularly jarring or clunky.
But there is an overall vagueness that is hard to ignore. The opening and closing acts feel detached from the film’s core. This should have been an opportunity to peel back an act of terrorism and fill it with real, gut wrenching empathy.
‘Taj Mahal’ attempts to explore human choice and emotion in the face of random and monstrous terror. While it achieves this at some points, the most chilling moments are from real news footage snipped into the reel—a sign that ‘Taj Mahal’ merely offers vague context, rather than revealing the human story behind the news.
‘Taj Mahal’ is being featured throughout the Alliance Française French Film festival until 24 March, see the full schedule here.
Have you seen ‘Taj Mahal’? What did you think of it? We’d love to hear your thoughts on this French film review in the comments below!
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All images courtesy of Alliance Française French Film Festival