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After the one-two punch of Quentin Tarantino and Bong Joon-ho, the Cannes Film Festival struggled to shake off the hangover with a pair of underwhelming competition entries from Arnaud Desplechin and Xavier Dolan.
You know it’s high time for a break from Cannes when zombified journos start fighting over the same seat in a half-empty movie theatre. I can understand the melee for the screening of Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood”, the festival’s most anticipated movie in many, many years. That film prompted frantic scenes in the 1,068-seat Théâtre Claude Debussy (Cannes’ second-largest), with stewards having to fend off desperate assaults on the handful of reserved seats with the best view. But there was really no excuse for the shrieks, insults and attempted strangulation witnessed the next day in the same theatre when a French critic suffered a complete meltdown for reasons unknown.
There was real strangulation in the film that followed, Arnaud Desplechin’s “Oh Mercy!” (“Roubaix, une lumière” in the French original) – though only as a reenactment of the murder this strange police procedural is centred on. The veteran director’s first foray into genre movies (and the first feature without his regular alter ego Mathieu Amalric), “Oh Mercy!” is inspired by a documentary on a very similar murder that shocked Roubaix in 2002. It came as a disappointment for many on the Croisette, wrapping up a day of deflation after the riveting entertainment served up by Tarantino and Bong Joon-ho the night before.
The director of “A Christmas Tale” takes us back to Christmas Eve in his hometown of Roubaix, in northern France, where we meet soft-spoken police chief Daoud (Roschdy Zem) on an evening patrol. There’s a case of arson, a scuffle with knives, a likely insurance fraud and a runaway teen from a mixed-race family. The scene is set at once: This is a once prosperous city that now ranks as France’s poorest, blighted by unemployment, racial tension and mostly petty crime – but it’s all filmed in an elegant, undramatic, almost affectionate manner.
Desplechin gives us one half of a social-realist film about poverty in the most deprived region of France, and then veers into something quite different when Daoud and his new recruit Louis (Antoine Reinartz) are confronted with the shocking murder of an 82-year-old woman who is found suffocated in her bed. The investigation soon focuses on Claude (Léa Seydoux) and Marie (Sara Forestier), the victim’s next-door neighbours who called the police and may know more than they claim.
It takes a split second for the wise and know-it-all Daoud to figure out who the culprits are, and Desplechin is not really bothered with maintaining any form of suspense. Instead, he is clearly fascinated with the dynamics at play between the murderers, in the manner of a Truman Capote trying to delve into the warped minds of the protagonists of “In Cold Blood” (the characters in “Oh Mercy!” are also inspired by real people). There’s a compelling reenactment of the murder and a few captivating moments in the lengthy interrogation scenes, but a lot of fairly tedious and poorly scripted ones too. Desplechin has fudged two films into one, but neither is particularly engaging.
>> Cannes Film Festival: Full coverage 2019
Earlier on I struggled to connect with Xavier Dolan’s “Matthias & Maxime”, which marked the director’s return to his native Québécois after his troubled English-language debut, “The Death & Life of John F. Donovan”. One of the most dazzling filmmakers of the past decade, Dolan has already won a Jury Prize and a Grand Prix, and is still only 30. His recent work suggests he is at an early crossroads, as are the protagonists of his latest competition entry, a heartfelt but not particularly inspired coming-of-age movie about two childhood friends who are forced to confront their feelings for each other.
Directing himself for the first time since “Tom at the Farm” (2013), Dolan stars as Max, a twentysomething barman from a troubled family in Montréal’s working-class suburbs, who has to look after his unappreciative wreck of a mother (Anne Dorval). Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas plays the other titular character Matt, who has a girlfriend, a promising job in a law firm, and wants to distance himself from their boisterous group of friends.
Max is looking for a change of life by moving to Australia for a couple of years. But the run-up to his departure is upset when Matt’s sister persuades both to star in a short film she’s making – in which they have to kiss. This seemingly innocuous event has an outsize impact on Matt, symbolised by him twice swimming across what must be a freezing-cold lake in a pre-dawn frenzy. From this early incident onwards, the once inseparable buddies are largely kept apart – and the scenes when they cross paths are a mix of brooding, regret, rancour and incommunicability.
Aside from those tight-lipped encounters, Dolan fans will be relieved to know that the other characters regularly engage in the torrential dialogues that are a staple of his movies. However, the director has ditched much of the flamboyance of his past work. Visually, this is far less dizzying and dazzling fare. Instead, Dolan has found a new form of candour and tenderness, and proven he’s a terrific actor. The trouble is that we never really get a sense of why Matt and Max were so close in the first place, making it hard for the audience to empathise and engage with them.