The latest from French auteur regular Arnaud Desplechin
For a while, it seemed that Arnaud Desplechin was the closest filmmaker we had to a modern-day Truffaut. A leading member of the second generation of Cahiers-critics-turned-directors, Desplechin represented the more classical counterpoint to Leos Carax’s Godardian deconstruction, infusing relatively traditional narratives with a sense of free-wheeling energy, deeply felt empathy, and effortless wit. He wore his cinephilia on his sleeve, but embedded his reference points within the fabric of character-driven stories which, in their boundless scope and sprawling structures, managed to wrestle with pressing contemporary issues while simultaneously reflecting on the role of cinema in shaping these issues.
Where, then, did it all start to go wrong? The Sentinel is a damn impressive debut, and My Sex Life…, Kings and Queen, and A Christmas Tale easily stand as some of the greatest films in modern French cinema. Esther Kahn may be a mess, but it’s an exhilarating mess, a victim of its own ambition. Desplechin’s first stumbling block was his American debut, Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, a turgid two-hander which lacks the vitality of his best work. Desplechin’s follow-up was My Golden Days, a film which self-consciously revisits his golden 90s/early 2000s period, but replaces the sense of political urgency with one of insular nostalgia. The release of Ismael’s Ghosts in 2017 marked something of a return to form, although the film’s myopic naval-gazing and inert tone makes it a far cry from his creative peak. Now Descplechin returns to Cannes with Oh Mercy!, and it’s a mixed bag, to say the least.
The film starts out strong. An abstract opening sequence layering images of Christmas lights atop shots of Roubaix slums neatly introduces the film’s visual palette, transforming the colours of the holiday season — searing golds, chestnut browns and earthy greens — into the foundation of an urban hellscape. Oh Mercy! marks Desplechin’s return to the city which formed the centre of his early work, but this time he turns the camera away from the intellectual middle-class, and onto the economically impoverished. The introductory voice-over fills us in: almost half of Roubaix’s population live in abject poverty, and a good portion of them are of Algerian descent. The first half of Desplechin’s feature is concerned with France’s post-colonial legacy and the traces of racial inequality which persist to this day.
In the first scene, a local drunk with a scorched cheek arrives at the local police station, claiming that his car was set ablaze by a group of Arabs. His case is handled by Daoud (Roschdy Zem), a level-headed chief officer who is descended from an Algerian family. As he pushes the drunk for details on the attack, the accuser crumbles, filling in the blanks with ridiculously over-the-top imagery that seems culled from jingoistic action cinema: the men were wearing turbans, sporting long beards, carrying a flame thrower, and yelling “Allahu Akbar.” The weary Daoud, thoroughly aware of the myriad forms ethnic oppression expresses itself with in Western society, can see through the ruse instantly. The drunk has chosen to burn his worthless vehicle for the insurance money, and place the blame on the area’s most marginalized group in the hopes that the systemic racism of the cops will prevent them digging deeper.
Leading on from this, the first portion of Oh Mercy! tracks a week or so in the life of Daoud and his team. This portion of the film is organized not around a single case, but around several, all of which have a racial dimension of some kind. One involves a mixed-race girl of African and French descent who runs away from home after taking on her African father’s surname despite the wishes of both parents. Another sees a house that has been burnt to the ground, and the only witnesses are a lesbian couple living next door (Claude and Marie, played by Léa Seydoux and Sara Forestier respectively) who simply place the blame on a duo — one French and one Algerian — but refuse to give more details in an effort to preserve the safety of their 6-year-old son. Still another deals with a young girl who is raped in a subway and claims an Arab man as the culprit.
These fragments, thematically related but narratively disconnected, are combined with interstitial scenes of hardscrabble life on the streets to create something of a city symphony, taking the form not of a police procedural, but a portrait of a community in which the legal forces are intrinsically intertwined. The two most central cops — the disenfranchised veteran, Daoud, and the idealistic newcomer, Louis (Antoine Reinartz) — are not so much protagonists, but anchoring figures around which the other segments orbit. Daoud wrestles with his position as a racial minority embroiled in a profession in which discrimination runs rampart (his nephew has been imprisoned for years on a minor offense, and views Daoud as a traitor to his people), while the white Christian, Louis, is a romantic eager to revolutionize the district, but is blinded by his own deeply ingrained prejudice (he takes the word of a seemingly white woman over an Arab teenager too readily, based on little concrete evidence, and refuses to acknowledge the role that economic uncertainty plays in driving those on the bottom rung of society to petty crime). This first segment is masterfully handled, a rich work of social exegesis employing the bare contours of a cop movie in order to dramatize pressing political ideas and examine the cultural context which produces high crime rates in underprivileged areas.
However, the second half of the film takes such a drastic nosedive in quality that it’s genuinely difficult to believe it was made by the same director. Following the discursive first acts, Descplechin zeroes in on a specific case: the murder of an elderly woman, of which the two primary suspects are Claude and Marie. And so the other established threads are dropped completely, and the film takes the form of a cable drama-style cop show, as Daoud devotes himself to taking down the pair, determining their motives, and restoring justice to the town. The richly textured visual scheme gives way to a number of dull, neutrally lit interrogation scenes which take place in mundane grey offices, and the formerly conflicted Daoud is reduced to a flat figure of audience identification, while Louis is almost completely abandoned.
As the clues become uncovered and a clear portrait of the crime emerges, it becomes increasingly clear that the duo was not motivated by sociological, racial, or religious motives, but simple psychological complexes, which Daoud explicates in dialogue. It is worth noting that Desplechin based the film on a true crime TV documentary titled Roubaix, Commissariat Central, but whatever drew him to the material, and whatever drove him to devote only the second hour of Oh Mercy! to covering that crime while the first saw the introductions of a bundle of loose ends, is honestly baffling. As it stands, the first half of Oh Mercy! represents Desplechin’s best filmmaking in years, while the second is easily the worst thing he’s ever produced. What a bizarre viewing experience.