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Afterthoughts and Postscripts, 53.3: David Pettersen
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"Brick Mansions: Besson and EuropaCorp Remake Banlieue 13 Ten Years Later"

David Pettersen, University of Pittsburgh


It is a felicitous coincidence that my article on Luc Besson's banlieue and parkour films should come out around the same time as the American release of EuropaCorp's "remake" of Banlieue 13 (Pierre Morel, 2004), with Paul Walker and David Belle, under the title Brick Mansions (Camille Delamarre, 2014). I put the word remake in quotes because Besson and Camille Delamarre's film is an odd example of the phenomenon. In the introduction to their edited volume about film remakes, Kathleen Loock and Constantine Verevis quote film theorist Robert B. Ray to suggest that remakes are not "a faded imitation of a superior, authentic original ... [but] a ‘citation’ grafted into a new context and thereby inevitably refunctioned ... [and] disseminated.”[1] The irony of Brick Mansions is that this process of repurposing was not initiated by a third party at a temporal or spatial remove from the original production team. Rather, Luc Besson conceived of Brick Mansions, and he even penned the screenplay for the American version. Whereas the original B13 represented a smart "translation" of John Carpenter's two films Escape from New York (1981) and Escape From L.A. (1996) to the French banlieue, Brick Mansions is a relatively poor attempt to bring the ideological context of the French banlieue back to the States to speak to Detroit's rather unique class issues. In terms of Brick Mansion's narrative progression and even shot selection and editing, the 2014 film seems at times to be an attempt to make a close copy of the original, similar in spirit to Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock's Psycho (1998) or David Fincher's Hollywood version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011). However, there are subtle differences in plot and character between Brick Mansions and Banlieue 13 that gesture to the filmmakers' efforts to transpose the French original to the American context. Ultimately, the film suffers from a lack of cultural knowledge about the context into which it is being inserted. For me, it evokes what Paramount's multilingual films made in France during the early 1930s must have felt like to audiences during the transition to sound: similar enough to promote recognition and at times pleasure, but different and strange enough to produce cognitive dissonance.

Brick Mansions opens not with David Belle's flight through the rooftops, but with a scene of Detroit's mayor and financiers discussing a project to build new mixed-use condo and retail space in the city. The mayor explains that Detroit's "inner city," referred to as Brick Mansions, will have to be razed before this project can begin. In his choice of framing, Besson borrowed some of the ideological context from B13's sequel, namely former French President Nicolas Sarkozy's failed New Paris project. While Detroit may symbolize urban blight in the American imaginary in the way that the banlieue does for French audiences, it is not an entirely equivalent space. The Parisian banlieue is relatively populated, whereas Detroit's inner cities are most well known for being empty and deserted. It makes no sense to characterize the fictionalized Brick Mansions neighborhood as a place where the urban poor would be enclosed and sectioned off from the rest of society. Besson's choice of opening scene reveals how the film’s reworking of B13 could have been used to talk about the gentrification of American cities. Indeed, as urban revitalization in large and mid-size American cities (even in emerging neighborhoods in Detroit) pushes the working class and unemployed urban poor out into the suburbs, something resembling the French banlieue could arguably be in the American future. However, Besson and Delamarre ignore the issue and opt instead to replay the narrative formula of B13.

Brick Mansion's transposition of race from the banlieue to Detroit is also problematic. Whereas Besson, screenwriter Bibi Naceri, and director Pierre Morel represented B13's gangs as multiethnic, a situation that has historically defined the French banlieue, Besson and Delamarre in Brick Mansions mark the American gang members' ethnicity as predominantly black. The gang leaders, K2 and the Taha figure (now called Tremaine), are black rather than North African. Besson adds a woman gang member to the mix, but he strays into the territory of racial stereotypes when he makes Rayzah a black lesbian in a leather bikini. Leïto's sister Lola becomes Leno's girlfriend, also named Lola. Brick Mansions' version of the character walks and talks like a Latina cliché dressed in a tawdry schoolgirl outfit from a pornographic film. The fight scene between Rayzah and Lola does nothing to challenge the masculine ethos of Brick Mansions. Rather, Delamarre creates clumsy, repetitive S&M references that only highlight the exploitation of both characters. Furthermore, Besson and Delamarre's choice to racialize the Brick Mansions neighborhood poses problems for David Belle's character. Whereas the multiethnic banlieue is more credible in the French context of B13, David Belle's white face clashes with Brick Mansion's image of a predominantly black American inner city. The film can never reconcile this point and in fact expresses some nervousness about it. One of the mayor's underlings refers to Leno as French Caribbean, which draws attention to the disjunction but neither adequately explains Leno's whiteness nor provides a reason for him to be in Brick Mansions.

As I argued in my article, one of the intriguing aspects of the original B13 was that audiences outside France could view it allegorically in the manner of John Carpenter's two Escape films. Domestic audiences and indeed the actors involved in the original B13 saw the film as a literalization of a social divide that already existed. When Besson and Delamarre attempt to transpose this literal approach from the French banlieue to Detroit, the original film's political fable no longer matches up to the American context. Perhaps if Besson had paid an American screenwriter to re-imagine the French film for the realities of urban poverty in America, the spirit of the original might have been better served. However, Besson ultimately chose to translate the original script and simply shore up any references that no longer made sense.

In terms of my argument in the essay about the alignment between the politics of production and the politics of the style, Besson should have chosen to shoot the film in Detroit if he wanted to keep to the spirit of the original project. However, he opted for Montréal. Indeed, the largely French speaking crew seen in the credits means that Brick Mansions was not itself an attempt at urban revitalization like some of EuropaCorp's other films from the 2000s. Rather, it is an attempt to secure an international audience while steering studio money to French and French Canadian crews. It must have meant an interesting production process for Paul Walker and the rest of the Anglophone cast. Indeed, Walker, who wanted to make the film in order to work with David Belle, said in an interview that the latter's English was so poor that they had to communicate mostly in signs.[2]

Pierre Morel's original Banlieue 13 is something of a cult film in the United States, and I suspect Besson was hoping to capture a wider English-speaking audience eager to experience the original's exhilarating stunts on the film's ten-year anniversary. However, such viewers would be better served by watching the original. Brick Mansions confirms my observation that that Banlieue 13 is more of an aberration in Besson and EuropaCorp's filmography than the harbinger of a new mode of socially engaged genre film production. It is still up other French filmmakers to explore these possibilities.



[1] Robert B. Ray, How a Film Theory Got Lost and Other Mysteries in Cultural Studies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 127. Quoted in Kathleen Loock and Constantine Verevis, Film Remakes, Adaptations and Fan Productions: Remake/remodel (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 7.

[2] "La dernière interview de Paul Walker.” 100% Mag, M6 video, 8:48. April 18, 2014. http://www.m6.fr/emission-100_mag/videos/11359842-la_derniere_interview_de_paul_walker.html.

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