|Directed by||G?la Babluani|
This stylish movie has the look and feel of film noir, with macabre elements of Hitchcock and of Roald Dahl, and the crackling dedicated narrative drive of an old radio play. It?s the impressive debut work of 26-year-old Paris-based director G?la Babluani, the son of the respected veteran Georgian filmmaker, Temur Babluani. The director?s younger brother Georges Babluani plays the lead. Movies seem to run in the family.
One of the pervasive themes of film noir is that of the decent young man caught up in circumstances which spiral out of control, and push him into moral choices and life-altering actions that lead him to the abyss. Sometimes the catalyst that jump-starts the process is pure chance, sometimes it?s the temptation for a guy down on his luck to make a quick score of some easy money. Here it?s a bit of both.
Babluani has employed gleaming, eye-riveting black-and-white photography (beautifully filmed by cinematographer Tariel Meliava) to showcase this neo-noir tale of the journey of Sebastien (Georges Babluani), an impoverished young Georgian immigrant, down a dark and twisted road to damnation. Sebastien has been hired to repair a roof in the little coastal French town where he and his family live. His employer, a shady fellow named Godon (Philippe Passon), will pay him in a few days, when he expects some big money, if he lives that long. Godon is a drug addict, which partly explains his tenuous expectations, but we have a feeling there may be something else as well.
?You survived last time,? a friend reassures him.
?That was last time,? Godon replies glumly.
We don?t know what he?s fretting about, but we do know the big payoff has something to do with an envelope that arrives containing a train ticket and a paid-up Paris hotel voucher. The cops know it too ? they?ve got his house under surveillance. And so does Sebastien, who keeps abreast of things by eavesdropping on Godon and his wife (Olga Legrand) through a hole in the roof.
When Godon dies of a morphine overdose, there?s nobody to pay Sebastien for his labor. He?s an honest young man, but when a gust of wind plays the role of the hand of Fate by wafting the envelope out the window into his path, he takes the bait. There?s a job out there, and a lot of money, and it?s no good to Godon any more. Sebastien will take the train, go to the hotel, take the place of the dead man, and wait to see what happens.
The nightmare is just starting. If you have ever been tempted to swipe a dead man?s train ticket and identity to see where it all might lead, this movie will cure you in a hurry. Without giving away the details, it?s permissible to say that it leads Sebastien to a house hidden deep in the woods where a sporting club congregates for high-stakes gambling on a lethal game of chance.
Once in, there is no turning back for our young protagonist. The only way out is straight ahead, through an experience so horrifying that survival is both unlikely and a mere technicality. Should he survive, his life will have been so profoundly altered as to make it almost irrelevant.
The gamblers, culled from the ?character? pages of the French casting directory, are a sideshow of jaws and noses and haircuts. They?re a jaded, cynical lot. One of them, of a philosophical bent, quotes Schopenhauer to the effect that we?re born once, die once, and what happens in between is of little consequence. What becomes of the contestants here, in whose number Sebastien unwillingly finds himself, is of no consequence to the gamblers. It?s all a matter of making the right bet, and hitting it big. The social parallels to capitalism and the EU are not difficult to draw.
The Babluanis acquit themselves handsomely. Georges makes a vulnerable, appealing protagonist, and G?la builds the tension and springs the horrors with a veteran?s poise. The film won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and the Best New Feature at Venice.
The number 13 (?tzameti? in Georgian) crops up with a self-conscious profligacy that suggests a first-time filmmaker, but most things about this maiden effort are sure-handed. It might have raised the emotional stakes if Babluani had given us a greater personal investment in Sebastien, but the visceral stakes are ratcheted up to a nerve-pounding level. The dogged cop who is pursuing the gambler?s club could have been fleshed out a bit and given some more satisfying cat-and-mouse machinations. He seems like an interesting character, but we?re never going to find out.
And the ending, finally, feels anticlimactic. But that is essentially because the climax has already been reached in the house in the woods, and anything that follows it must of necessity trail the trappings of afterthought.
© Text 2006 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be