Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 03, 2012 5:46 pm 
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Vicissitudes of the gangster code

There are still a few more films in the 2012 Rendez-Vous series not included in the press screenings. This one, which swings back and forth between the Seventies and more recent times, is a bracingly violent and complicated gangster movie based on a memoir. Olivier Marchal, whose sixth feature this is, is a former policeman. Within its limits this is extremely well done. The French make their own kind of crime movies, and if Guillaume Canet's Tell No One and Jacque Audiard's The Prophet are any example, they do it better than Hollywood nowadays. This one has touches from The Godfather -- it's trendy opening titles don't conceal the fact that it owes debts to the past -- but it's rooted in Mediterranean omertà. It fundamentally concerns two childhood pals, bound by a gypsy bond of masculine friendship. They're Momon Vidal and Serge Suttel (played as fifty-somethings respectively by Gérard Lanvin and Tshéky Karyo) who are jailed together in their teens for their first crime, stealing a case of cherries, and then get put away later for longer stretches due to an informer who is never identified. Starting out, they work for gangsters around Lyons -- the French title of the film is Les Lyonnais -- and then risk the anger of the big boys to start a gang of their own.

In the present, less faded-out scenes, Serge has been caught after many crimes and much hiding and Momon is called upon to get him out, but he has a younger, more unscrupulous crew do the job, a choice he later regrets. All this is mixed with flashbacks to the history of Serge and Momon's friendship and joint lives of crime, so both tales slowly advance simultaneously. Both are very violent. Marchal has a way with cars and automatic weapons of any period and the violent scenes are beautifully if sometimes shockingly or numbingly staged. Given its basic theme of gang loyalty, the film is needlessly complicated. If it were a little simpler and less elaborate technically and had less loud racy music it might have more lasting emotion. But it's still a good watch for fans of French gangster movies and tells an agreeably tangled tale of criminal loyalty and betrayals.

The Variety reviewer Boyd von Hoeij points out that the film's violent crime scenes which he (a little unfairly) calls "mayhem-chic montage sequences" are all set in the past, with the exception of the jail break for Serge with Momon absent. Hoeij feels that since the "more contemplative moments" belong to Gérard Lanvin (whose gnarly wrecked good looks provide a glamorous screen to flash back disillusion) and the film contains separate narratives that don't quite "coalesce." It looks as if Marchal had a lot of fun shooting the Seventies young-men gangster sequences and makes them go on too long, or not long enough since they have too little dialogue or distinct plot.

Les Lyonnais is very conventional but it has the power to entertain. Banking on this working in American art houses, Harvey Weinstein has thought fit to pick it up and release it in the US (at a date not yet announced). It got a mixed reception from French critics when it opened in Paris November 30, 2011, with an Allociné rating of 2.8, showing a few enthusiastic reviews but a number of ones with reservations. It's been compared to the much more elaborate gangster biopic Mesrine, but that fared much better with critics. Its narratives of different periods were more fully developed, and rather than focusing on nostalgia for a dying gangster code, it concentrated on rich historical detail, though still offering plenty of violence and excitement. But that was two features: Marchal's film comes in a tidy 75-minute package.

Presented as a part of the UniFrance and Film Society of Lincoln Center March 1-11, 2012 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema. Scheduled at IFC Center and Walter Reade Theater for:

Sat., March 3, 4:45pm – IFC; Thurs., March 8, 8:45pm – WRT; Fri., March 9, 4pm - WRT

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