StudioCanal has a habit of what strikes me as ‘dumping’ French titles on the UK market. They open in a handful of cinemas with little promotion and then go straight to DVD or online. These are sometimes titles from interesting directors or they have been hits in France but are presumably not expected to do well in the UK (e.g. La famille Bélier last year). Mon Roi is a film by actor-writer Maïwenn. Her previous film, Polisse (France 2011), won the Jury Prize at Cannes and was widely nominated for awards. It too had a relatively limited release in the UK, despite significant success in France. I was tempted to see Mon Roi at HOME in Manchester, partly because Peter Bradshaw’s Guardian review gave the film ‘One Star’ and described it as “an unendurable confection of complacent and self-admiring nonsense: shallow, narcissistic, histrionic and fake”. I’ve been agreeing with Bradshaw too often recently and this looked like an opportunity to end that run.
The ‘Roi’ in question is Georgio (Vincent Cassel) who tells his new lover Tony – Marie-Antoinette – that he is not a ‘jerk’ but ‘the King of Jerks’. The film begins in a familiar way with an accident in which Tony has a spectacular skiing accident (offscreen). We guess from various clues that the accident was at least partly her own fault, through inattention or deliberate foolhardiness. As a result of a serious injury she must spend several weeks/months at a rather nice rehabilitation centre by the sea. This gives her time to think back over the previous 10 years and her volatile relationship with Georgio. In flashback we see how they met and how the relationship developed.
I have to admit that there was a moment in the first half of the film when I wondered whether I could cope with watching the affair develop and then unravel. But later on I began to get more interested and overall I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t use ‘Five Star’ ratings but if I did this would be at least a Two Star and possibly a Three Star film. It certainly seems to provoke Love/Hate reactions with critics and audiences, but overall seems to score positively. Part of the interest is in the casting. Vincent Cassel plays close to his usual persona but is capable of both ramping it up and toning it down – and the latter can be quite chilling. Tony is played by Emmanuelle Bercot who I barely know of at all. Bercot is also an actor-director and she took on this challenge in the midst of directing her own films. She has the difficult task of ageing 10 years and at first I struggled to recognise the ‘younger’ woman as the same actor I saw in the rehab centre. She achieves this both through a change in her hairstyle, but also something about her eyes which I couldn’t quite figure out. Cassel has to age as well, but his features are both so well-known and so distinctive that I had no problems with his character. As I’ve often noted, films directed by women tend to have a more frank attitude towards representing sex on screen. There is certainly a lot of both Bercot and Cassel exposed on screen. They didn’t seem to have body doubles and for a pair of actors born in the late 1960s they both look in very good condition. I certainly didn’t have problems with the depiction of their sexual relationship.
Georgio is certainly a jerk – an arse I would call him. Tony is an independent woman, a high-flying criminal lawyer who falls deeply in love and agrees to marry and then have Georgio’s baby, both actions that will later rebound upon her. Her younger brother and sister-in-law see through Georgio, but that doesn’t mean Tony is a fool. The rows between Tony and Georgio are fierce – Bradshaw’s ‘histrionic’ perhaps – but they didn’t feel fake. I know men with some of Georgio’s traits and they seemed real to me. The final scene is in its own way chilling and Tony simply looked stunned. Bradshaw dismissed the flashback structure and all the rehab scenes but I enjoyed these. The centre seems to cater for young men with sports injuries and I thought the play with social class, gender and racial identity between Tony and the ‘lads’ was interesting.
Mon Roi feels very ‘French’. That’s perhaps a facile statement, but the film has a quality I can’t describe and it seems to go with a certain sense of humour, a perception of what is ‘cool’ and a willingness to explore the extremes of relationships. I liked all the performances and I’m struck again by just how many female filmmakers in France can get films made and into distribution compared with their British sisters. It’s a shame this hasn’t had a wider release and more discussion about the characters. Emanuelle Bercot tied with Rooney Mara (for Carol) as Best Actress at Cannes for her performance as Tony. I’m not sure I agree with that but she is certainly very good.
Danny Boyle has been all across the UK media for the last few weeks. I came out of a screening of Trance and found myself in the car listening to a long interview with him on the Radio 4 Film Programme. I’m not sure that this exposure is necessarily good for him – the best thing he’s done recently was to quietly refuse a knighthood. He’s a nice guy and a great filmmaker but now that he is a national treasure, expectations of his work have sky-rocketed. I get the impression that Trance is deliberately dark and nasty – he has called it the ‘evil cousin’ of his Olympics show. Perhaps it was the right film to make to escape from the gushing praise and to reclaim some ‘edge’ in his filmmaking.
Francine Stock’s interview did tease out some of the elements of Trance which I think can be ‘triangulated’ in a number of ways. On one level, as Boyle suggested, it is a return (with John Hodge) to the three-hander about greed that was his first cinema feature Shallow Grave in 1994 – but now the characters are that much older and a good deal nastier. The setting for the narrative is initially the art world and the two men/one woman situation. In fact there are many elements in common with the Jo Nesbo adaptation Headhunters (Norway 2011). That film has more humour and is essentially an action thriller. The other well-known art theft scenario that comes to mind is a two-hander and a ‘romance-thriller’, The Thomas Crown Affair (1968 and 1999). Trance is much darker, drawing heavily on film noir – Boyle repeatedly called it noir/noirish in the interview. He also said, and this is key I feel, that the stolen object is purely symbolic – it represents something valuable that has been lost, but finding it is about power rather than just money. So what we get is a game about being in control and achieving the power when there are two other competitors. Who do you side with and who do you attempt to push out of the ring first? (The painting is a Goya used in several ways in the plot.)
I suspect that many of us are going to be racking our brains as to which noirs the film reminds us of. I can see that there are some resemblances to Out of the Past (Build My Gallows High, 1947), another three-hander, but in tone Trance is more like the later 1950s noirs from the real hard-boiled guys like Robert Aldrich with Kiss Me Deadly or Joseph H. Lewis’ The Big Combo (both 1955). Having said that, I’m not sure that the script is able to maintain the same tone throughout and at times it seemed to become more playful. The noir milieu depends on mise en scène, editing, sound and having good performances. Boyle is very keen on the importance of sound and I did notice it in the film, not just the music score which is interesting, but more so the sound effects and the voices. Boyle picked out sound as being important in an immersive sense – making us feel that we are trapped inside the head of a character experiencing hypnosis. However, effective though this is in the film, it’s the camerawork that really confirms a sense of ‘disturbance’ and claustrophobia. The hypnotist lives in one of those old Georgian terraces with a lift that has cage-like metal grille doors, perfect for shooting through (camera and guns) and other scenes take place in clubs, warehouses and bedrooms with glass walls, mirrors and concealed lighting. I thought that the camerawork was very good, but I did have doubts about the digital image which in a couple of shots didn’t have the deep blacks and clarity in low light levels that I expect from noirs.
The film is very much a three-hander. Even though there are important secondary roles, it is James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel and Rosario Dawson who must carry the film. I’m not sure why but I have problems with McAvoy as a lead in this kind of film. The problems are probably with me rather than him as he seems popular as an action hero, but there it is. I can’t explain it and in theory he is well cast – but he just doesn’t do it for me. Cassel on the other hand rarely puts a foot wrong in anything he does and he has the presence for a film like this. Rosario Dawson is terrific. I haven’t seen any of the Hollywood blockbusters she’s been in but I realised later that she was in two Spike Lee joints (He Got Game and 25th Hour). She has the definite strength and screen presence to stand up against Cassel. With these three leads and the rest of the criminal gang, Boyle has a ‘cosmopolitan cast’ for a film which he tells us could be set anywhere. There’s some truth in that but in a couple of scenes I thought “this can only be in London”. I’ve seen some reviews that mention Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises as another ‘alternative view’ of London’s criminal mileux, but apart from Vincent Cassel, I didn’t see any other similarities – the one thing Trance clearly isn’t is a film set in a specific cultural context.
I’m not sure whether the film will be successful. It’s quite a talky film with relatively few action sequences. The narrative inevitably twists upon itself because of the hypnosis sequences and I’m not sure that the multiplex audience or Danny Boyle’s hardcore fans are that taken with this kind of noir. I would need to see it a second time to begin to analyse how well the script stands up – at the moment it seems like the weakest element of the film. But having said that, new ideas keep popping up – none of the three principal characters have much in the way of backstories and I’m not sure what that means. The film is being seen by several reviewers as ‘style over substance’ but I think there is more to it than that. On the other hand, audiences who go looking for Inception or something similar will be disappointed. Anyone who says that the plot doesn’t make sense ought perhaps to remember that even Raymond Chandler couldn’t explain the plot holes in The Big Sleep – noirs are meant to be like dreams (or nightmares).
Two final points – it was good to see Tuppence Middleton getting a major film credit to follow her BBC appearance in The Lady Vanishes. I’d love to know how much Apple contributed to a film which is probably the most effective ad for a ‘gadget’ I’ve seen so far.