Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Mar 10, 2019 4:20 pm 
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In search of an exhausted, hysterical imposter

Patricia Mazuy's surprising police thriller - a laugh, a puzzler, and an adrenaline rush - takes us to a place we don't know, the warm, semi-mountainous region of Le Var, a completely unfashionable part of the Côte d'Azur. At first the action looks quite conventional: a police procedural involving bumbling provincial cops. But a lot of energy is generated with this simple, familiar raw material creating a mix of suspense, humor, sexiness, the penetration of a dark violent mind, and sustained mystery - even as we seem to be seeing all that's happening. The ending may be obvious - it's been telegraphed repeatedly - but still takes one aback. There is something crowd-pleasing, yet also almost conceptual, a flip-around of the genre. This shows the French are smart, even in recognizing how dumb they can be. It's all done with material that's universal, like celebrity killers, media madness, ambitious young people, and provincial desperation.

Acknowledgement of stupidity focuses particularly on the true-blue rural French Gendarmerie. That's the proud crew we peer in on where we meet some key characters. Marion (Zita Hanrot) is the eager young woman on the staff who wants to work her way to the top and gain the admiration of her commander, and that's how she addresses him at every opportunity, "Mon Commandant" (Philippe Girard). The commander is a dry, reedy fellow, secure in his command and firm in his advocacy of tact and restraint. Things are quiet here, and he wants them to stay that way. The offices of the Gendarmerie are interesting. They are spiffy and up to date, yet nothing is going on. Somebody filming himself slashing Arab guys' tires and posting it on YouTube is a big story.

Tact and restraint don't describe what Marion has just been doing, which is trying to arrest Johnny Depp for getting a blow job on the road, and then seizing his Porsche and driving it away. But while this famous person's name is being bandied about, up pops the name of the most ambitious young local journalist, Yohann Poulain de Var-Matin (Idir Chender), who wants to be famous. The commander wants to keep him far away from Johnny Depp's Porsche or any word of his recent behavior. But soon Yohann is there: nobody is far away.

Word is going around HQ of another celebrity, suddenly sending emails and making phone calls to local people. He is the grizzly, long-gone local murderer, Paul Sahchez, "the Beast of Gévaudan, Jack the Ripper," who killed his wife and children and incinerated them and escaped a decade ago, and has never been caught. After sightings round the world but never being close to capture, word is he's suddenly, inexplicably, in Le Val. And he is, sort of, and his presence, real or imagined, is going to dominate the rest of the movie, and provide its mix of desperation and adrenaline, contrasting unhinged events with confusing coverage by contrasting local and national media.

This was the last film I saw in the 2019 New York Rendez-Vous with French cinema, and confirmed that for me the discovery of the series was the male actor Laurent Lafitte, of the Comédie Française. Lafitte, a tall, muscularly built man with a dark, dour yet sympathetic face, surely should be hard to miss. But he has been hiding from me in plain sight, since he turns out to have sixty-two film credits (as well as no doubt many stage ones), including roles in such notable films as The Crimson Rivers, Tell No One and Elle. But the day before I saw him in this film, where he has the leading role, I saw him play the lead in Sébastien Marnier's elegantly edgy thriller, School's Out/L'heure de la sortie, where he memorably plays the role of Pierre, beleaguered substitute teacher of a class of maniacally brilliant and dangerous young teenagers.

The producer of Paul Sanchez told us Laurent Lafitte is very famous in France. Now we know why. He is, once you notice him, a powerful presence. Let's forget the twenty-five-year-old rising star Vincent Lacoste for the moment - both star in two films of this year's Rendez-Vous - and focus on the forty-five-year-old Lafitte.

Here, he plays Didier Gérard, a local guy who sells swimming pools, who has gone berserk and disappeared from his family. (Earlier, we have seen his wife come to the station to report his disappearance. Marion has told her not to worry, to get her hair done.) Evidently though Le Val isn't rich and fashionable, it has people who can afford pool constructions, along with the right climate for them. Soon we realize it's Didier Gérard (Laurent Lafitte), driving around in a gaudy, rather pathetic little company panel truck, failing in getting bank approval for a twenty-four thousand euro SUV, now calling Yohann and saying that he's Paul Sanchez, back in town, mulling over his past violence and contemplating more.

As we follow the doings of Yohann and the police, we're also following Didier Gérard, who's a man increasingly wildly on the run. Whoever this man is - and we start to wonder - the film editing, plus Laurent Lafitte's presence, generates a hysterical, and yet also weary and desperate, energy.

Yohann and Marion are excited, and drawn to each other. They seem the right couple. The weather is hot, the time is right. They get it on. Almost. But the phone calls are increasing. Yohann has to take one, just when they get naked: Marion knows who it is. Which is more exciting, sex or a notorious killer? Sadly, for this ambitious young couple, it's the killer. Or the chance of one.

Marion's foolishness with Johnny Depp has hinted how unreliable, what a potential loose canon she is. And yet her energy suggests uprightness and duty. But the buffoonery of the Gendarmerie increases with the hysterical flight of "Paul Sanchez" through the region, trashing his own real identity, setting fire to it, hiding on Roquebrune rock, but sneaking into town to use the internet, stealing weapons. He frantically buys stuff to supply his hiding out, and a couple at a convenience store definitely confirm it: Paul Sanchez is back! They have seen him. This is all the commandant needs to conclude the rumor is true, to call out the gendarmerie and start combing the region.

But Marion has an inside line, and she finds her way directly to him, and tries to keep him to herself. In the event, she will have none of Didier Gérard's protestation now: "I am not Paul Sanchez!"

We can't reveal more; we've already revealed too much. But it will be just as much fun to watch it unreel nonetheless.

Another note: just before the film was introduced to the audience, someone confided to me he'd been told this was the best film of the festival - because it was endorsed by Cahiers du Cinéma. An interesting endorsement. Cahiers certainly rarely likes a film. Generally their critics detest the films other critics most like. Worth considering.

Cahiers is not wrong. Patricia Mazuy, here, does something admirable and enjoyable: there are pleasing genre elements but there is no genre predictability here. She takes convention and turns it on its head, providing fresh insights, an enjoyable watch, and non-stop energy. And she makes admirable use of the tall body and the dour, tired, slightly frightening face of a new idol already well known to the French: Laurent Lafitte of the Comédie Française.

This is the rare Patricia Mazuy's fifth feature (she made only only four over the past 30 years). It's enlivened by a percussive, bracingly strange score by John Cale.

Paul Sanchez Is Back!/Paul Sanchez est revenu!, 110 mins., opened theatrically in France 18 Jul. 2018; later Warsaw and Mar del Plata fest showings. A small number of very good French reviews were received, including from Cahiers! (AlloCiné 3.3). Screened for this review as part of the UniFrance-Film Society of Lincoln Center Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, Mar. 2019.

Rendez-Vous showtimes:
Friday, March 8, 8:30pm
[B]Saturday, March 9, 5:45pm
North American Premiere

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