Tete de Mule

By Victor Barges | Drama
A man must smuggle refugees across the Serbian border. But there's not enough money.

Ulysse works for his brother Xherdan, who, among other things, smuggles refugees into Europe for exorbitant amounts of money. Ulysse dreams of buying himself a bigger motorhome to live in. So he's been embezzling from his brother to get to his goal faster.

When his brother finds out, he ransacks Ulysse's home and takes the money back. When Ulysse confronts his bigger, more dangerous brother about it, he realizes just how much greed has corrupted his most personal relationships. When Ulysse is told to ferry a pair of refugees across the Serbian border and they come up short with money, Ulysse is faced with a choice of what's important in life.

Written and directed by Victor Barges, this intriguing, strikingly shot short drama takes the structure and focus of the character-based drama and turns it into a compelling meditation of greed, trust, love and family, rendered with propulsive, seductive craftsmanship that captures the lurid appeal of having money and power as well as the squalor that sits alongside that wealth.

It begins with a moment on a precipice, as an injured young man talks on the phone outside his car. He tells a motorhome seller that he's short on money and can't buy it right away, only to be told that the selling price has gone up. At a loss of what to do, he goes back to his car and tells the unseen people in his backseat that they, in turn, are short on money, and need to give him more. The situation is clear: he's taking refugees across a border, and he's shaking them down for more cash.

The storytelling then cycles back further in the past, building up the backstory to this moment. We see Ulysse with his girlfriend India, as well as their sexual problems. The scene is rich with detail and character, revealing an exuberant, brash young man whose confident demeanor belies deeper insecurities. It also reveals Ulysse's aspiration for a bigger motorhome, as well as a big secret: a big bag of money that Ulysse has been siphoning off from doing jobs for his brother.

Actor Robin Barde plays Ulysse with both an innate youthful brio and a fundamental decency, buried under a streetwise demeanor that's wary and guarded. And with good reason: his brother and boss, Xherdan -- played by actor Kevin Castera -- is volatile, louder and domineering. He treats Ulysse more like a lackey and employee, but when Ulysse tries to appeal to their familial bond, Xherdan pushes that idea aside. What people want more than anything, he tells his brother, is money. Without money, there is room for little else. As that idea hangs over Ulysse, he finds himself in a situation where he holds the fate of two people in his hands -- as well as the opportunity to squeeze more money for himself.

"Tete de Mule," which means "as stubborn as a mule" in French, could refer to Ulysse's sometimes pugnacious way of interacting with others. But it also refer to the tenaciousness required to claw their way up to achieve a dream or a goal. But as Xherdan himself notes, the idea of heaven also means that there is also a hell. And to get close to one's dreams in a realistic world, you also need money -- which can reverse loyalties, betray trust and corrupt something decent and essential within ourselves. It's a hard choice, but it's also a hard world.

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