At the outset of “Promises,” protagonist Clémence Collombet is not an obvious fit for the talents of its leading lady. A former doctor turned mayor of an impoverished town on the outskirts of Paris, now reaching the end of her political career, she’s a decent, conscientious woman who has done a respectable job in office, but doesn’t seem blessed with great ambition or imagination.
If only because of who is playing her, however, we anticipate some additional layer of human complexity or complication to emerge in this merely respectable woman, and eventually we (and she) are rewarded. When Clémence receives an out-of-the-blue offer to become a government minister, her selfless principles are shed and her conscience suddenly plagued faster than you can say “Isabelle Huppert”; only then does writer-director Thomas Kruithof’s measured political drama begin to get going.
Even once it gets its heroine a bit dirty, however, there remains something cautious and unexcitable about “Promises.” Intelligently fixated on the nuts and bolts of everyday politics in practice, Kruithof is so resistant to more emotively amped-up, movie-style drama that his film risks coming off underpowered, and even a little dour. Typically excellent work by Huppert, sharply matched by Reda Kateb as the mayor’s gradually rebelling chief of staff, is the only international drawcard for a film that at times feels like the pilot for a knottier, more patiently absorbing TV series. Still, that’ll be enough to earn select distributors’ attention following the film’s premiere in Venice, where it opened the Orizzonti sidebar.
Kruithof’s 2017 debut, the Francois Cluzet starrer “Scribe,” likewise sought tension in gray political process, though the convoluted, ’70s-flavored conspiracy thriller built around that was frequently implausible. With its emphasis on quiet credibility and community-minded politics, “Promises” feels somewhat like a corrective to that film’s more fanciful excesses, even as it kicks into straight-up thriller mode — with a slightly contrived race-the-clock element — late in the game.
There’s a topicality, too, to its most critical subplot, involving a multimillion-Euro proposal to renovate a social housing estate fallen into scarcely habitable disrepair. The shadow of the 2017 Grenfell Tower tragedy, and the global discussion it prompted as to the role of government in our everyday safety, is felt over Kruithof and Jean-Baptiste Delafon’s thoughtful, talky script. As Clémence prepares to complete her mayoral term and embark on a retirement for which she has nothing planned, she wants this investment in her poorest constituents’ futures to be her lasting legacy.
Yet just as she enters the home stretch, a few unanticipated obstacles threaten to scupper the whole project — and just as Clémence prepares to address them, she’s distracted by the sudden possibility of a major career upgrade. When a government higher-up suggests to her that she has minister potential, she’s instantly drawn to a level of political power-mongering that she never previously pursued, though it may come at a cost to the public who got her there in the first place. First, she is warned, she’ll have to unlearn all the socially conscious priorities she’s adopted as a mayor, reporting to the prime minister first and her voters second. “With more power comes less freedom,” she concludes: We’re a long way from Eleanor Roosevelt’s politics here.
When that trajectory, too, hits a roadblock, Clémence spirals into impulsive, irrational measures to keep her career afloat at any cost — to the consternation of her hitherto loyal right-hand man Yazid (Kateb), a self-made son of the very housing estate under threat, and her planned mayoral successor Naidra (Naidra Ayadi). The protagonist’s swift escalation from modest woman of the people to desperately aspirational operator could be hard to swallow if not for the eminently human sinuousness of Huppert’s performance. She persuasively suggests not a simple personality shift, but the teased-out emergence of lifelong wants, previously tamped down by diplomacy and duty to others.
If anything, the political back-and-forth of Kruithof’s plotting begins to crowd out its possibilities as a character study, meaning the film never quite reaches maximum intensity in either department. There’s more we’d like to learn about how the guarded, unmarried Clémence lives when she isn’t living for others — her detached relationship with her scarcely glimpsed son is just one of these intriguing loose threads — and even Huppert can only intuit so much. “Promises” pulls back from its protagonist just as we want to zoom in, to take in an admittedly fascinating bigger picture: It’s distinctly democratic filmmaking in that respect, but it could humor its heroine’s ego just a little more.