Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Oct 02, 2019 6:38 pm 
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A sumptuous but pointless detour for Desplechin

The director departs from bourgeois intellectual families and love affairs to focus on a slow police procedural focused on the death of an old woman, set n his poor, crime-ridden hometown of Roubaix near the Belgian border, and made in declared admiration of Hitchcock's The Wrong Man.

Everything here is beautifully done - yet misguided. The main focus is on the sordid murder of a helpless old woman by a lesbian couple, Marie (Sara Forestier) and Claude (Léa Saydoux), and the captain in charge of the investigation, Commissaire Yacoub Daoud, played by the estimable Roschdy Zem. There is the obligatory rookie detective on the case, Louis Cotterel (Antoine Reinartz). The first hour is spent on other things, a half drunk man caught out in a fake insurance claim, a house fire seen to be arson, cocky young men evading he police, Daoud's angry nephew in prison and his love of horse racing, which Cotterel turns out to be good at betting on.

And still the process of getting Marie and Claude to confess to their murder takes an hour that seems very long. We see the cops work in threes separately on each of the two suspects, a woman and a good cop-bad cop, with Daoud always playing the quiet, restrained good cop. Earlier he has confirmed to Cotterel the rumor that he always knows who is innocent and who is guilty. But such a sixth sense is hardly needed for Marie and Claude because there is so much evidence of murder and of their presence before they[re brought in for questioning. So there is no mystery and nothing interesting to discover. Then when they have separately and together both confessed, with the tougher Claude holding out longer, we have to watch them taken to the crime scene to act it out in more detail. I found this scene, which is gruesome yet trivial, a true banality of evil moment, particularly hard and unrewarding to watch.

This would seem to misunderstand what makes us interested in dramas that depict detailed police investigations. Who cares whether both women had their hands on the poor old lady's neck as she was strangled? This is indeed a detailed introduction to French police methods, but not in a way that holds our interest. It is true that Desplechin departs from the conventional, but only in minuscule ways. Jay Weissberg observed in his Variety review that Daoud is the interesting character, not the women (both actresses rather wasted, especially Seydoux). There's a hint of more to come (as if this were a series pilot) in the news that all Daoud's family have all returned to the "bled", to North Africa, while he's chosen to stay here where he grew up. There could be more about Cotterel, perhaps an emotional trajectory of the relationship between rookie and oldtimer as in Xavier Beauvois' moving The Little Lieutenant .

At the same time the film excels in its rich cast details, nuanced depiction of Roubaix at and just after Christmstime (with a memorably drab shot of street decorations coming down). But somehow this doesn't read as any kind of portrait of Roubaix beyond what we're told at the outset of its former vigor and present poverty and decline.

Desplechin is one of the best and most distinctive contemporary French directors when he's got the right material. The 2015 My Golden Days (NYFF 2015) was great; last time's Ismael's Ghosts (NYFF 2017) was a misfire. This is another of the latter: so much good work, with the wrong material.

Oh Mercy!/Roubaix, une umière,/ 119 mins., debuted in Competition at Cannes, released in France in Aug. 2019, with very good reviews (AlloCiné press rating 3.7); apparently only in four other festivals, including New York and Vancouver. Screened for this review as part of the NYFF, Oct. 2, 2019. Metascore 51%.

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