Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Sep 19, 2015 5:46 am 
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Overambitious and under-involving directorial debut for Audiard scriptwriter

Thomas Bidegain, who has written for director Jacques Audiard (his 2009 A Prophet and 2012 Rust and Bone), turns to directing for Les Cowboys with a script by Noé Debré. Unfortunately, it's a disaster, tendentious and overwritten. It begins with an interesting milieu, French people who adore the American West and like to gather in cowboy clothes, ride horses, and sing western songs. The time is 1995. There, a man called Alain (François Damiens) sings a verse of "Tennessee Waltz" to warm applause and shares a waltz with his daughter Kelly, and then, as the evening wears on, gradually realizes Kelly has disappeared. Events follow hard -- too hard and fast -- upon one another as it turns out she has a secret Arab boyfriend who's a jihadist, and she's run off with him.

Alain gets fed up with the police and tries to intimidate the boyfriend's family, then launches his own search for Kelly, even though she has sent a letter saying she has run off voluntarily with her Muslim boyfriend and not to look for her. He traces Kelly to gypsies, then to Belgium, then farther afield, going on a rampage of angry searching, bent on revenge like some John Ford hero, meeting a sudden end after being seen in Syria and apparently having been in Yemen; the plot skips ahead, difficult to follow as 9/11 and the emergence of Al Qaeda deepen motivations. The usually sympathetic Damiens never seems to find a rhythm of his own either here. In a Variety review Peter Debruge points out a relationship to Ford's The Searchers, and thinks Bidegain is carrying further the explorations of machismo he pursued in his scripts for Audiard. (That may be, but less plausibly; and Rust and Bone already strained the limits; but Audiard seems capable of making anything come to life, and is brilliant with actors, a quality Bidegain may not share.)

As abruptly as the father's search is forcibly ended by his accidental death his son takes over. Georges, or "Kid," his cowboy nickname (Finnegan Oldfield), hitherto passive and silent, but who had stubbornly refused to go with his father on his last search, drop his job as a short order cook and sets out with his own kind of fervor on his own dogged search, losing himself in faraway countries, more flexible and changeable than his father, following hints and traces of his sister. He runs into John C. Reilly in Pakistan, of all places, where Reilly's character, of all things, is a human trafficker. Reilly seems to play it for laughs, which won't wash, and his presence stands out by a mile. The script is heavy on events and local atmosphere, with the ersatz French cowboys ironically the most authentic -- and weak on characterization. Characters have little depth and behave implausibly.

With Kid as the new protagonist in countries where French isn't known, English takes over. Though Kelly's boyfriend/abductor was Maghrebi, Arabic is not heard from, nor, despite references to 9/11, Madrid, and the London bombings, is there any exploration of the origins and nature of jihadist thinking or of how Europeans, particularly women, can be drawn into it. (A late scene does briefly show a mainstream French dislike of hijab-wearing.) In Pakistan, Kid suddenly has a European charitable organization girlfriend (Antonia Campbell-Hughes), randomly thrown in and later as quickly dropped. Movement from one situation to the next tends to be jerky throughout the film, which isn't always easy to follow.

Thanks to some astonishing coincidences, Kid's search turns out more successful than his father's, and he ends up involved in a relationship more surprising than anything hitherto in this too arbitrary-feeling tale. The film's attempt to be topical and important and the absurdity of the overplotting suggest Bidegain, who certainly has much talent as a screenwriter, could still use a strong sure hand like Audiard's -- a collaborator more aware than he seems to be of how things play on screen and what moves audiences. Let's hope he has a stronger collaborator for his next directorial outing. Debruge calls Les Cowboys "an elliptical art film that’s tough to watch, yet continues to haunt in the weeks that follow." True, there are several memorable scenes. But the opacity of the characters and the crudeness of the transitions between plot developments mar these memories, and in some ways Les Cowboysechoes the worst mainstream "topical" conventions.

Les Cowboys, 114 mins., debuted at Cannes May 2015 in Directors Fortnight; also in other festivals, including Toronto, Busan, and London. Screened for this review as part of the New York Film Festival. French theatrical release scheduled for 25 November 2015. (AlloCiné press rating 3.5/31).

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